Strong penalties could be in the works after Saints "bounty" program

The news is stunning. As many as 27 Saints defensive players and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams maintained a "bounty program," paying players for knocking opponents out of games, says the NFL.

On Friday, Williams apologized to the Saints, owner Tom Benson, and the NFL for what he calls "a terrible mistake."

The NFL says payments were made for interceptions and fumbles recoveries, but the program also included "bounty" payments for cart offs (the opposing player being carted off the field) and knockouts (the opposing player did not return).

The NFL said the total amount of the pool may have reached $50,000 or more during the 2009 NFL playoffs. The league said players were paid $1500 for a knockout, and $1,000 for a cart off, with payments doubling and tripling during the playoffs.

NFL commisioner Roger Goodell said the investigation began in early 2010 when allegations arose that the Saints targeted Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.

Warner was hit by Saints defensive end Bobby McCray in a 2010 playoff game. He was knocked out of the game, but later returned to the game.

In the 2011 season, Saints safety Roman Harper was fined multiple times, once after he hit Carolina's Steve Smith after a touchdown catch.

"I think the point was taken and I mean, everybody that needed to get the point got it," Harper said in an interview in October 2011.  "And the people that didn't, you know, didn't get it. I think the NFL got the point. I got the point. Everybody who was involved got the point."

The NFL has specific rules against bounty hunting, and payment of non-contract bonuses violate league rules and the collective bargaining agreement.

The league said it reviewed 18,000 documents and used forensics to verify the authenticity of key documents.

The NFL said Saints head coach Sean Payton was not a direct participant in the program, but was aware of the allegations and failed to stop the bounty program.

In an August 2010 interview, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said this about the play of his defense: "A defense has to be respected and they are respected when they are feared. And what we are trying to do is, none of the things we do is cheap; they are aggressive. We are not going to apologize for how hard our guys are going to play, and we are not going to apologize for trying to lay the wood on everybody."

Saints owner Tom Benson acknowledged the investigation in a statement: "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."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was harsh in his statement: "It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated."

Sports Illustrated says Saints linebacker Jon Vilma had a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre.

Expect penalties to be substantial: hefty fines and/or suspensions for saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are certainly possible.