(AP) —The NFL handed down sweeping and unprecedented punishment Wednesday for bounties paid out on big hits, suspending New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton without pay for next season and indefinitely banning the team's former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, who now works for the St. Louis Rams.
Payton is the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason. He is accused of trying to cover up a system of extra cash payouts that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called "particularly unusual and egregious" and "totally unacceptable."
"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game. We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities," said Goodell, whose league faces more than 20 concussion-related lawsuits brought by hundreds of former players. "No one is above the game or the rules that govern it."
According to the league, Payton ignored instructions from the NFL and Saints ownership to make sure bounties weren't being paid. The league also chastised him for choosing to "falsely deny that the program existed," and for attempting to "encourage the false denials by instructing assistants to 'make sure our ducks are in a row.'"
Goodell also banned Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season, and assistant coach Joe Vitt for the first six games.
In addition, Goodell fined the Saints $500,000 and took away their second-round draft picks this year and next.
After the NFL first made its investigation public on March 2, Williams admitted to — and apologized for — running the program while in charge of the Saints' defense from 2009-11. He was hired by the Rams in January.
Goodell will review Williams' status after the upcoming season and decide whether he can return to the league.
The Saints now must decide who will coach the team while Payton is barred, his suspension is effective April 1, and who will make roster moves while Loomis is out.
After the NFL made clear that punishments were looming, Payton and Loomis took the blame for violations that they acknowledged "happened under our watch" and said Saints owner Tom Benson "had nothing to do" with the bounty pool, which reached as much as $50,000 in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees reacted quickly to the news on Twitter, writing: "I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor ... I need to hear an explanation for this punishment."
The NFL said the scheme involved 22 to 27 defensive players; targeted opponents included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
According to the league, Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked then-Vikings QB Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.