NEW YORK — New Orleans Saints players and at least one assistant coach maintained a bounty program the last three seasons for inflicting game-ending injuries on opposing players, including Brett Favre and Kurt Warner — a pool that reached as much as $50,000 and paid specific amounts for "cart-offs" and "knockouts," the NFL said Friday.
The report said the pool amounts reached their height in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.
The league said between 22 and 27 defensive players were involved in the program and that it was administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with the knowledge of coach Sean Payton.
No punishments have been handed out, but they could include suspension, fines and loss of draft picks. The league said the findings were corroborated by multiple, independent sources, in an investigation by the league's security department.
Williams, who was hired in January as defensive coordinator by new Rams coach Jeff Fisher, was not immediately available to comment.
"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance,' but also for injuring opposing players," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity."
Payoffs included $1,500 for a "knockout" and $1,000 for a "cart-off," with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs.
"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated," Goodell said. "We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it."
The league absolved Saints owner Tom Benson of any blame, but said the investigation showed Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew about the bounty program.
"Although head coach Sean Payton was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the program, he was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program. He never instructed his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was improper and could not continue," the NFL said.
When informed about it earlier this year, the NFL said Benson directed Loomis, to "ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately." However, the NFL's report said the evidence showed Loomis did not carry out Benson's directions, and that in 2010 Loomis denied any knowledge of a bounty program.
"There is no evidence that Mr. Loomis took any effective action to stop these practices," the NFL said.
Benson responded to the NFL's report saying: "I have been made aware of the NFL's findings relative to the 'Bounty Rule' and how it relates to our club. I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
The NFL began its investigation in early 2010 after receiving allegations that quarterbacks Warner of Arizona and Favre of Minnesota had been targeted. After interviewing several Saints who denied the bounty program existed — and having the player who originally made the allegations recant — the league couldn't prove anything.
However, Goodell said the NFL "recently received significant and credible new information and the investigation was re-opened during the latter part of the 2011 season."
Favre's agent, Bus Cook, said he was unaware of the investigation until Friday. He said the Saints should have been penalized for several hard, late hits during the 2009 NFC championship game and that he believed the contact was not coincidental.
"It was pretty obvious that the intent was to take Brett out of the game, and it happened the week before with Kurt Warner, too," Cook said. "I don't know anything about whether it was by design or whatever, but I think a lot of people shared that same viewpoint that there were some hits that didn't get called."
Cook, however, said Favre never suggested to him he was maliciously targeted.
"That's part of football, getting hit," Cook said. "Brett never complained to me one way or another."
Responding to a fan's comment on Twitter that — even if the Saints had a bounty program — the playoff hit on Warner was clean, the former Cardinals quarterback messaged back, "I would have to agree with you!!!"
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this story.