When the hammer fell on the New Orleans bounty program, a lot of people asked a lot of questions. Some pointed out that these programs existed all over and questioned why New Orleans should be singled out for punishment? Others suggested that Roger Goodell was looking for a distraction from the various health and safety issues that are now coming to light in relation to concussions. This bred a lot of various conspiracy theories, crackpot ideas from people who thought that everything wasn't exactly right.
Although I don't allow myself to believe in conspiracy theories, except for one, I'd like to propose a new one I haven't heard discussed before.
One of the questions that hasn't gone away is who the NFL's source was for the bounty leak. At some point, it became obvious that Goodell had evidence against Jonathan Vilma and other members of the New Orleans Saints, and used this evidence to suspend him and others, including head coach Sean Payton, from the league for various sentence lengths. But the contents of this evidence, as well as its source, remain unknown.
At one point, Jonathan Vilma sued the NFL for defamation, claiming that he did not participate in any bounty program. The NFL, apparently desiring to avoid a public suit, attempted to settle with him immediately. When this did not work, Vilma and seven others testified in an arbitration court, in front of a federal judge, who ordered the NFL to reinstate the players. Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and Joe Vitt, and Mickey Loomis, the coaches and front office staff suspended, were not similarly reinstated.
They did appeal, but their appeal was turned down by Goodell himself. Rather than take it further, they ended their protest there.
Some have suggested that these coaches/front office staff have a long future with the NFL and taking it further would damage that relationship. However, I'd like to offer another possible explanation. One that I do not believe in, but would still like to propose just in the interest of "what if."
What if Sean Payton were the source of the bounty program evidence? That is to say, what if he leaked his own involvement and the involvement of others in his staff to Goodell, knowing he would be suspended, punished, and that his team would be harshly dealt with?
There are a few things that Payton would stand to lose in this scenario: he obviously loses a year of coaching, and all that entails. And he suffers a hit to his reputation as the bounty program took place on his watch and was allegedly covered up by him. If no one knows that he was the source, that is, I believe, where his personal losses end: with blows to his career and his legacy.
The bounty scandal opened up a wide inquiry into the violence of the sport, something that many, including those deeply involved with the sport (such as Payton) would like to see curtailed to some extent. This is a more altruistic rationale, though, so it's not that convincing. There is one, much larger reason why Payton benefits from the bounty system.
Sean Payton gets a year off. Not a suspension, but a vacation. And when he returns from his enforced vacation (the only reputationally acceptable way he'd be able to keep his job after a sabbatical would be such a suspension), he will be sorely missed, welcomed back with open arms. The New Orleans Saints, one of last year's strongest teams, have started the season, through three weeks, without a win. All three of the teams they have lost to are not great teams; the only wins they have are the wins against New Orleans. For all intents and purposes, they look like a terrible team, and the only other 0-3 team is the Cleveland Browns, the team that many picked to lose the whole year.
When Payton comes back, he'll have the benefit of a team that hasn't gotten worse in terms of talent. He'll have a high second-round draft pick (assuming Goodell reinstates that pick, which is being discussed) or a high third-round draft pick. He'll have the support of his front office. And he'll have everyone in the world realizing just how important a head coach is.
Right now the phrase "coaching matters" is more meaningful than ever before. And when it's time for Payton to cash out on that belief, there's no question he'll do so big time. If he is the source of the documents that exposed this scandal, it was an investment. An investment on which he stands to make glorious returns.