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He suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for all of next season, and indefinitely banned their former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, who was recently hired by the St. Louis Rams. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was barred for half of 2012, an assistant coach got a six-game ban, and the team also was docked two second-round draft picks and $500,000.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark thought the penalty for Payton was “extreme.”

“They made a point because the coaches were involved,” Clark said. “They were going to get somebody.”

When the NFL first made its investigation of the Saints public on March 2, droves of former players talked about how off-the-books incentives have been offered in NFL locker rooms for years and years _ not on the scale of what happened in New Orleans, but illegal nonetheless.

Theismann, for example, insisted bounties were put on him.

“In a sick way, I guess it’s flattering,” he said recently. “If you had a bounty on you, you were a pretty good player and they wanted to get rid of you.”

One of the ex-players suing the NFL, former Saints receiver Joe Horn, has no doubt there’s a connection between the concussion-related court cases and Goodell’s actions.

“All of a sudden, he wants to pop his chest out and set up these (punishments)? If he was a great commissioner and he really cared about player safety, he would have fined teams five years ago for what happened, because it happened back then,” Horn said. “(Goodell) should fine himself $7 million, because as the commissioner, he should have known years ago this same thing was happening with every other team in the NFL.”

Goodell still needs to decide what to do about the two dozen or so players involved in the scheme in New Orleans from 2009-11, when Williams handed out envelopes stuffed with cash to reward particularly vicious hits on specific opponents. Targeted players included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner; “knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cart-offs” $1,000; payments doubled or tripled during 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.

The NFL Players Association said Thursday it wants to meet with Goodell to discuss the bounty investigation before players are punished.

“To date, neither the league, nor the Saints, have helped us facilitate interviews with members of management or the coaching staff,” the union’s statement read. “We expect the league to provide all information so that we can ensure a fair process for all who were involved.”

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Freelance writer Bryan Lazare in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.