Over the last few months, Commissioner Roger Goodell and his league surrogates have been trying their hardest to sell one single version of events as it relates to their investigation of an alleged bounty program in the New Orleans Saints locker room from 2009 through 2011. The problem is that everything in their version of events seems to conflict with at least one other piece (usually multiple pieces) of their own evidence. As their story continues to crash down around them, the league continues to deny that they could be wrong. The other night while researching Goodell’s memorandum to all 32 teams regarding the state of the bounty case, another possible chain of events became very clear. Considering how well it fits the evidence and how little contradiction there is, it must be given equal consideration if not more.
The First Investigation
During the playoffs of the 2009 season, Brad Childress (not a Vikings player) approached the NFL and stated his belief that the Saints defense had placed a bounty on then-Vikings QB Brett Favre. Perhaps he was still upset about missing out on the Super Bowl. Perhaps he was still upset because he felt some of the hits on Favre were outside the rules. The reason for him making this statement to league officials could be any number of things, but it was not because then-Vikings DT Jimmy Kennedy told him about it. Kennedy has twice denied the league’s assertion that he was the source of the original investigation in a very clear, loud and public manner. According to his sworn declaration submitted in federal court Thursday afternoon, Kennedy said that then-NFL director of investigations Joe Hummel called him on two separate occasions and during each 30-second conversation Kennedy stated he has nothing to offer on the subject at all. So this brings it all back on Childress. In all likelihood, Kennedy’s name was given to investigators when Childress was asked in later meetings how he knew about the alleged bounty and he needed a connection to the Saints.
After speaking to Childress on several occasions, NFL investigators went to New Orleans to investigate. That investigation involved interviewing Saints coaches and front office management as well as Hargrove. At the time of this investigation there was a pay-for-performance program in place in the New Orleans locker room which then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did not want to be discovered. So Williams and assistant coach Joe Vitt met with Hargrove to inform him that he may be interviewed in connection to the bounty (pay-to-injure) investigation and instructed him to play dumb with regard to the team’s pay-for-performance program which was not the focus of the investigation.
In the end, the league found no evidence of a bounty on Favre because there was no evidence to find. It all stemmed from a baseless claim by the coach of a team who missed out on the Super Bowl at the hands of the Saints.
The Second Investigation
In April 2010, shortly after the conclusion of the first investigation, defensive quality control assistant Michael Cerullo was fired by the Saints. He was reportedly fired for disappearing twice during the season and getting caught lying about the reason for his disappearances. Unable to find a new job in the NFL, Cerullo took a position as a football aide at the University of Connecticuton June 1, 2011. It has been reported that Cerullo believes the reason he could not find another NFL level job was because he was blacklisted by the Saints, specifically head coach Sean Payton, Williams and Vitt, and swore revenge. Less than six months later, Cerullo made his move.
During the latter part of the 2011 NFL season, Goodell states he received substantial new information and evidence. Over time it came to light that this information was provided by none other than Cerullo. Having worked for with the Saints during the first investigation, he knew what information the league had been looking for so he knew what to include in his statements and what evidence he would need to fabricate to back up his words. Among the evidence likely provided by Cerullo were three handwritten notes allegedly detailing payments as part of a supposed pay-to-injure program. The league stated these notes were transcribed to protect the identity of the author, however according to Cerullo’s own declaration these are notes that would have been written by him. He claims that his responsibilities within the alleged program included keeping track of the dues and fees owed by players. The problem with these handwritten notes is that even the league has stated that they are inaccurate. For some reason, none of the league investigators found it suspicious that an ex-employee with a grudge just happened to have all of this alleged evidence at his fingertips.
At this point the NFL reopened the investigation into the alleged Favre bounty and broadened its scope to investigate an entire pay-to-injure program. NFL investigators found proof of the team’s pay-for-performance program on team computers. In light of Cerullo’s claims and convenient evidence, the league’s investigators interpreted this evidence as proof of pay-to-injure program they were seeking rather than the pay-for-performance program it actually proved. They also came across email that included jokes based on the league’s first investigation that investigators did not take as jokes. Based on this information, Goodell levied his penalties against the Saints, general manager Mickey Loomis, Payton, Vitt and four players. Cerullo had managed to orchestrate his revenge.
As for Goodell’s part in the initial investigation and findings, it seems less likely that Goodell orchestrated it and more likely that he was duped into it. While public perception is that this investigation was Goodell’s doing, there is a more likely driving force behind this just below him. NFL VP of Law and Labor Policy Adolpho Birch oversaw and defended the investigation’s findings. He is also the person that head of security Jeff Miller and Hummel would have been reporting to on the case. Birch is the NFL official who in May 2010 was sharply rebuked by Hennepin County, MN District Judge Gary Larson for his poor implementation of league rules, his questionable handling of the Starcaps case, and for playing “a game of gotcha” with the players involved. Larson also called Birch’s investigation into who leaked PED test results “very brief” and “highly suspect”. Among the players involved in the case were three Saints players, including accused bounty participant Will Smith. Also involved in the Starcaps case was current Jonathan Vilma attorney Peter Ginsberg. To say there is some history between the two sides of the bounty case is an understatement. Rather than questioning the information provided by a disgruntled former Saints employee, Miller and Hummel likely investigated the case under the direction of Birch who then sold the findings to Goodell.
At some point fairly early on but after the original penalties were issued, Goodell figured out that he and the league had been duped by Cerullo and fallen victim to Birch. At that point Goodell was faced with a choice: publicly admit what happened and take a huge hit to his career or ride it out. Since he believed he would be the only person to ever rule on the case, he chose to ride it out. This is the point where the commissioner went from foolish to guilty. The league began to both leak and release pieces of “evidence” such as the alleged bounty ledger, the appeals exhibits, and the alleged Hargrove video in an attempt to bolster their case in the public eye. That plan didn’t go over as well as expected due to credibility issues. With no good news from Judge Helen G. Berrigan, Goodell tried to find a way out relatively unscathed by discussing a suspension reduction for Vilma to put an end to things. To this day Goodell continues to try to find a way out of this debacle, even if it’s at the expense of the livelihood and reputation of others.
In the end, entire mess is the result of the actions of just four people. Not the four players whose professional lives have been ravaged by this investigation. Not the coaches and GM who have been closed off from their careers and many if not most of their friends. The blame for all of this falls at the feet of Brad Childress with his unfounded claims, Mike Cerullo with his thirst for revenge and willingness to do whatever he had to, Adolpho Birch with his overzealous and highly suspect investigative methods, and Roger Goodell with his desire for self-preservation outweighing his need to do what’s right. If the league can stick with their story that only fits the facts they pick and choose, then I see no reason no to believe this version of events that actually fits with and explains all of the evidence.