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.”

Statement from the Saints:

“Today, Commissioner Goodell apprised us of the severe penalties facing our club, as proposed by the NFL.

“We recognize our fans’ concerns and we regret the uncertainty this episode has created for them. We are humbled by the support our organization has received from our fans today in the wake of this announcement, and we ask them to continue to stand with us, as they have done in the past, when both our team and our city have overcome greater adversities.

“To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations. It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.”

Greg Bensel, Vice President of Communications, New Orleans Saints

Other penalties

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.

Brees reaction

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.

All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently — although not on the same scale as the NFL found in New Orleans.

In a memo sent out to the NFL’s 32 teams, Goodell ordered owners to make sure their clubs are not offering bounties now. Each club’s principal owner and head coach must certify in writing by March 30 that no pay-for-performance system exists.

Punishment for any Saints players involved will be determined later, because the league is still reviewing the case with the NFL Players Association.

“While I will not address player conduct at this time, I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players — including leaders among the defensive players — embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players,” Goodell said.

Far-reaching discipline

The discipline for the Saints’ involvement in the bounty scheme is more far-reaching than what Goodell did in 2007, when the NFL came down on the New England Patriots for illegally videotaping an opponent. Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000, stripped a first-round draft pick, and docked their coach, Bill Belichick, $500,000 for what was known as “Spygate.”

As recently as this year, Payton said he was entirely unaware of the bounties — “a claim contradicted by others,” the league said. And according to the investigation, Payton received an email before the Saints’ first game in 2011 that read, “PS Greg Williams put me down for $5000 on Rogers (sic).” When Payton was shown that email by NFL investigators, he acknowledged it referred to a bounty on Rodgers, whose Packers beat the Saints in Week 1.

The league said that in addition to contributing money to the bounty fund, Williams oversaw record-keeping, determined payout amounts and who got cash, and handed out envelopes with money to players. The NFL said Williams acknowledged he intentionally misled NFL investigators when first questioned in 2010, and didn’t try to stop the bounties.

Vitt was aware of the bounties and, according to the league, later admitted he had “fabricated the truth” when interviewed in 2010.

Loomis knew of the bounty allegations at least by February 2010, when he was told by the league to end the practice. But the NFL said he later admitted he didn’t do enough to determine if there were bounties or to try to stop them.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

The NFL Findings

The findings in the league’s investigation, corroborated by multiple independent sources, conclusively established the following:

• 1. The Saints defensive team operated a pay-for-performance/bounty program, primarily funded by players, during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons. Under that program, players regularly made cash “donations” to a pool, and were “fined” for mental errors, loafing, penalties, and the like. At least one assistant coach (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) also occasionally contributed to the pool. There is no evidence that any club money was contributed to the program.

• 2. Payments were made for plays such as interceptions or fumble recoveries. All such payments are against league rules. Payments also were made for plays on which opposing players were injured. In addition, specific players were sometimes targeted. The investigation showed bounties being placed on four quarterbacks of opposing teams - Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner. Multiple sources have confirmed that several players pledged funds toward bounties on specific opposing players, with defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in 2010.

• 3. Coach Williams acknowledged that he designed and implemented the program with the assistance of certain defensive players. He said that he did so after being told by Saints Head Coach Sean Payton that his assignment was to make the defense “nasty.” Coach Williams described his role as overseeing record keeping, defining payout amounts, deciding on who received payouts, and distributing envelopes with cash to players who “earned” rewards.

• 4. In each of the 2009-2011 seasons, the Saints were one of the top five teams in the league in roughing the passer penalties. In 2009 and 2011, the Saints were also in the top five teams in unnecessary roughness penalties; in 2010, the Saints ranked sixth in the category. In the January 16, 2010 divisional playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, Saints defensive players were assessed $15,000 in fines for fouls committed against opposing players. The following week, in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, Saints defensive players were assessed $30,000 in fines for four separate illegal hits, several of which were directed against quarterback Brett Favre.

• 5. Coach Williams now acknowledges that when he was first questioned about this matter in early 2010 he intentionally misled NFL investigators and made no effort to stop the program after he became aware of the league’s investigation.

• 6. Coach Williams further confirmed that the program continued during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and that he occasionally contributed funds to the pool in each of those seasons.

• 7. Assistant Head Coach/Defense Joe Vitt acknowledged that he was aware of the program in 2009-2011. He admitted that, when interviewed in 2010, he “fabricated the truth” to NFL investigators and denied that any pay-for-performance or bounty program existed at the Saints.

• 8. Coach Vitt said one of his primary roles was to monitor the activity of Coach Williams. This was based on the direction of Coach Payton, who apparently had less than full confidence in Coach Williams. Despite Coach Vitt’s knowledge of the bounty program, his understanding of the terms “knock-out” and “cart-off,” his witnessing Coach Williams handing out envelopes that he believed to contain cash, and his acknowledgement that the defensive meeting preceding the 2010 NFC Championship Game may have “got out of hand” with respect to Brett Favre, Coach Vitt claimed he never advised either Coach Payton or General Manager Mickey Loomis of the “pay-for-performance/bounty” program.

• 9. A summary prepared following a Saints preseason game included the statement, “1 Cart-off - Crank up the John Deer (sic) Tractor” in reference to a hit on an opposing player. Similar statements are reflected in prepared documents or slides in connection with other games in multiple seasons. A review of the game films confirms that opposing players were injured on the plays identified in the documents.

• 10. When interviewed in 2012, Sean Payton claimed to be entirely unaware of the program, a claim contradicted by others. Further, prior to the Saints’ opening game in 2011, Coach Payton received an email from a close associate that stated in part, “PS Greg Williams put me down for $5000 on Rogers (sic).” When shown the email during the course of the investigation, Coach Payton stated that it referred to a “bounty” on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

• 11. In early 2010, Mr. Loomis advised Coach Payton that the league office was investigating allegations concerning a bounty program. Coach Payton said that he met with his top two defensive assistants, Coach Williams and Coach Vitt, in advance of the interview with league investigators and told them, “Let’s make sure our ducks are in a row.” Remarkably, Coach Payton claimed that he never inquired of Coach Williams and Coach Vitt as to what happened in the interviews, never asked them if a “pay-for-performance” or bounty program was in fact in place, and never gave any instructions to discontinue such a program.

• 12. In January 2012, prior to the Saints’ first playoff game of the 2011 season, Coach Payton was advised by Mr. Loomis that the league office had reopened the investigation. Coach Payton made a cursory inquiry but took no action to ensure that any bounty program was discontinued.

• 13. General Manager Mickey Loomis was not present at meetings of the Saints defense at which bounties were discussed and was not aware of bounties being placed on specific players. Mr. Loomis became aware of the allegations regarding a bounty program no later than February 2010 when he was notified of the investigation into the allegations during a meeting with NFL Executive Vice President-Football Operations Ray Anderson. He was directed to ensure that any such program ceased immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis did not do enough to determine if a pay-for-performance/bounty program existed or to end any such program that did exist.

• 14. Saints owner Tom Benson notified Mr. Loomis in January 2012 prior to the team’s participation in the playoffs that the league’s investigation had been reopened. Mr. Benson reiterated his position that a bounty program was unacceptable and instructed Mr. Loomis to ensure that if a bounty program existed at the Saints it would stop immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis responded to this direction by making only cursory inquiries of Coaches Payton and Williams. He never issued instructions to end the bounty program to either the coaching staff or the players.

• 15. There is no evidence that Saints ownership had any knowledge of the pay-for-performance or bounty program. There is no evidence that any club funds were used for the program. Ownership made clear that it disapproved of the program, gave prompt and clear direction that it stop, and gave full and immediate cooperation to league investigators.