- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2012

In any scandal, it’s about following the money. The New Orleans Saints learned that hard lesson when the NFL found they had orchestrated a bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents and knocking them out of games. Suspensions and fines followed.

Don’t think the Washington Redskins and the rest of the league didn’t take notice.

“I think obviously with the way [commissioner] Roger Goodell handled the bounty situation, there’s definitely a culture change that has taken place in the NFL,” middle linebacker London Fletcher said. “If you had incentives before, you’re not doing anything like that anymore.”

In losing coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma to season-long suspensions and assistant Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis to shorter bans, the Saints took the brunt of the fallout. But with a “culture change” comes a different way of life for Redskins coaches and players.

And while former Redskins defensive back Matt Bowen wrote in the Chicago Tribune earlier this year that ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a similar system in Washington, the NFL has cleared the team of wrongdoing, and the impact moving forward is more about coaches having a sharper awareness of what they can and can’t say.

Pregame speeches are meant to fire up players, but several Redskins noticed coaches watching their language in light of Saints colleagues getting into trouble.

“There’s a certain way you talk about playing defense, playing football, certain phrases that you would use that they want to be a little bit more careful about using just because you never know who has what on them as far as recording with technology these days,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “I’ve definitely heard several coaches [be] careful the way they use their words or if they say something, they say, ‘Well, I don’t mean it like that, but you know what I mean.’”

The so-called “culture of football” is about hitting and going hard every snap. But Williams earned an indefinite suspension for being the mastermind of the Saints‘ bounty system and for recorded comments that went over the line.

“We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head,” Williams said, referring to the San Francisco 49ers running back. “We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.”

According to a review by The Washington Times this summer, more than 3,400 former NFL players have sued the league over concussions. Rules have been refined in recent years to limit hits to defenseless players, and enforcement of fines has been stepped up.

“It’s kind of hard to go out there and play reckless now,” Redskins linebacker Rob Jackson said. “You’ve got to be careful how you hit a guy, if you’re using [your] helmet, if you’re using your shoulder pads, where you’re hitting ‘em. You’ve just got to be a smart player overall.”

With the possibility of someone recording what’s said in the locker room, it’s up to players and coaches to choose their words wisely. Jackson and others recognize that speeches typically can’t be taken literally and often sound worse than what was intended.

“We’re all professionals here. We all want to go out there and play physical, but ultimately, we don’t want to see people get hurt and injured because this is our livelihood, and the coaches are the same way,” defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “I think [coaches are] more conscientious of just saying what they really mean instead of exaggerating.”

Jackson noted that the language this preseason was a lot less “violent” than in the past. There’s less talk of killing and hurting and more about making good, hard tackles.

Players have even picked up on coaches stopping to clarify what they meant.

“Making sure that they aren’t taken the wrong way,” Alexander said. “They’re kind of covering their backs.”

Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said he hasn’t noticed a change in coaches’ demeanor or speeches because the Redskins have “more cool, calm, collected-type coaches anyway as far as letting us be men out there and just let us handle our business on our own.” The aggressive mentality is unchanged.

“A team takes on the character of its coach,” linebacker Chris Wilson said. “Our coaches here, we deal with X’s and O’s. They preach physical and everything else as well, but as far as the character of our coaches, they’re not in-your-face, talking, cursing and spitting type guys.”

Perhaps having more mild-mannered coaches is part of the process, but the Redskins staff knows all about what happened in New Orleans and the adjustments that might be necessary from the old way of doing things.

“You are who you are, and you speak the way you speak. I just kind of talk the way I always do. You always talk about doing a great job tackling … those types of things,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “But I think there’s more of an understanding about how you say things. But the game’s still about getting to the quarterback and bringing them down, it’s still about disrupting receivers at the line of scrimmage and trying to make plays on the ball. So however you verbalize that.”

What took a few Redskins players aback was that the Saints‘ bounty system put a priority on inflicting injuries. It’s not all that uncommon for teammates to make side wagers on tackles or even incentives to make big plays, but bonuses for knocking out colleagues was entirely different.

“I’ve never heard of that,” Alexander said. “I’ve heard of making plays: You get a sack, you get this much, you go down and make a big hit, but never legitimately if you take this guy out of the game, you get X amount of dollars.”

Wilson said there’s a self-policing aspect of football that players usually can tell when opponents are trying to hurt them. Learning of a team encouraging injuries came as a surprise to him because of how much effort goes into not wanting to see colleagues carted off the field.

“I think football is one of the few games you openly see prayer taking place. It’s in the locker room all the time because you can get hurt doing it,” he said. “But we’re all professionals; we’re all doing something we love to do, and we’re all trying to make a living. You pray for guys, you pray for yourself as well as the other team and hope nobody gets hurt, and then you go out there and play the game as best and as aggressive to your abilities.”

But aggression can be costly. There’s a psychological element that could come into play for Saints defenders and others who now might not have the benefit of extra bonus money.

But Alexander said guys can’t play the game even thinking about that in the heat of battle.

“We play this game because we love to play it and we’re professionals,” Golston said. “The incentive is to go out there and be a professional.”

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