SALT LAKE CITY — The investigation continues into revelations that the New Orleans Saints paid bounties to their players for hits that injured players. Who knows what the investigation will ultimately reveal, but my guess is that if the NFL is really earnest about this, it won't be difficult to find other bounty programs, past and present, of varying degrees of seriousness.
Just call an NFL player near you and ask — especially if it's a former player — and trigger a mutiny on the bounties.
I called four former players last week. One denied seeing any bounties, one didn't return my calls and two of them — Jason Buck and Lee Johnson — reported witnessing bounties, although they did not consider them malicious.
Buck and Johnson, who live in Utah, were teammates at BYU and later with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals made Buck, a defensive end, the 17th pick of the 1987 NFL draft. He played five years for Cincinnati and three years for the Washington Redskins before retiring in 1993. The Houston Oilers chose Johnson, a punter, in the fifth round of the 1985 draft. He played for six teams during an 18-year career before retiring in 2002.
"Yes, (bounties) were around when I was playing," says Buck, who is running for the Republican nomination in the 2nd Congressional District in the upcoming election. "Here is the rule we played by: Cheap shots — or trying to injure someone — were never accepted by anybody. We never tried intentionally to hurt someone. Never."
On a couple of occasions he saw position coaches offer money to any player who "pancaked" a certain opposing player. Before a playoff game against the Vikings, a Bengal defensive coach told his players, "This doesn't leave this room. There's $500 for anyone who pancakes (a certain player)." He had previously coached the player and Buck considered it a fairly "friendly" bounty.
After the game, Buck told the opposing player about the bounty that had been placed on him. The player laughed and then swore; he had been pancaked four or five times that day.
Buck says head coaches Sam Wyche and Joe Gibbs never knew about the bounties, and it was never condoned by the organization. "I saw position coaches or a combination of coaches and players put money into a bounty — you know, here's 500 bucks for every time you pancake so-and-so," says Buck.
Buck says he knew of bounties that were offered by other teams, either because the player had a big mouth or was known for cheap shots.
"There were bounties on (outspoken linebacker) Brian Bosworth by other teams," says Buck. "We'd laugh out loud when we saw it on film. You'd see an offensive lineman chasing Bosworth 40 yards down the field to get his pancake on the sideline. You knew something was up when you saw that. Bosworth caused himself problems with his mouth. I never saw anyone get pancaked so much. He had a target on his back.
"We knew of bounties out there. You'd hear of players putting up a hundred bucks. It didn't bother me as long as it was not a cheap shot. If someone was setting you up for cheap shots — and I had people do that to me — that was crap."
As a punter, Johnson had limited exposure to the mayhem on the field, but he saw enough of it. He recalls that every game there were cash rewards for certain plays.
"It was paid out of a kitty," says Johnson. "It was never to take someone out of the game. It was for aggressive, physical play. We definitely got compensated for big hits and big blocks. It was mainly the players, but the coaches kicked in (money) too. Or maybe they would offer to take them to dinner."
Johnson himself offered modest bounties on the field before punt plays. "In the huddles, I would offer $100 for big plays inside the 20 or a big hit or a turnover," he says. "It was amazing to me that guys who were making $400,000 a year would be incentivized by 100 bucks to make a big hit, but they were."
During his 18 years in the league, Johnson never heard of the type of malicious bounty that was offered by the Saints. But he thinks more such bounties are out there.
"What blows me away is that this went public," he says. "It's not going to end here. I think more are coming."
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