NEW YORK — Saints players and at least one assistant coach maintained a bounty pool of up to $50,000 the past three seasons to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opposing players, including quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, the NFL said Friday.
The league said the pool amounts hit their height in 2009, the year New Orleans won the Super Bowl. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for playoffs.
The league said between 22 and 27 players were involved in a program administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with the knowledge of coach Sean Payton.
Williams, 53, apologized for his role, saying: "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it."
Williams was recently named the Rams' defensive coordinator.
According to the report, linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked the Vikings' Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in January 2010. Favre was hurt after taking repeated hard hits but stayed in the game, which the Saints won.
Favre told Peter King of Sports Illustrated on Friday: "It's football. … Said or unsaid, guys do it anyway. If they can drill you and get you out, they will.''
Possible penalties could include suspensions, fines or forfeiting draft choices, the league said.
The league said neither Payton nor general manager Mickey Loomis did anything to stop the bounties when they learned of them or of the league's investigation — and that Loomis did not stop the bounties even when ordered by team owner Tom Benson.
From 2009 to 2011, the Bucs faced their NFC South rival six times. In a 2010 game, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins was penalized for a late hit on Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman confronted Jenkins, saying Jenkins tried to hit him in the knees. Jenkins was fined $10,000 for the hit.
"If you want to try to hit me, hit me high," Freeman said after that game. "I thought it was completely unnecessary and cheap to take a shot at my knees."
Other Bucs said it wasn't the first time they had issues with the Saints, contending they were, basically, a dirty team and consistently engaged in "cheap shots."
All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules.
Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman wrote on his Twitter feed that his 2007 knee injury occurred because of a bounty placed on him by the Titans when he was with the Chargers: "Why is this a big deal now? Bounties been going on forever."
Former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy said of bounties in the league, "I know they had them in Tennessee" and Peyton Manning was the target. Williams was on Jeff Fisher's staff at Tennessee (1997-2000) and has been reunited with Fisher this season in St. Louis.
EX-BRONCO NOT GUILTY: A Colorado jury acquitted former Broncos cornerback Perrish Cox. Cox was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his apartment in September 2010 after a night of partying. She became pregnant, and prosecutors said DNA tests indicated Cox, 25, was the father.
GIANTS: Receiver Domenik Hixon, who has played just two games the past two seasons because of two ACL tears in his right knee, re-signed for a year.
RAVENS: Running back Ray Rice was designated the franchise player. He is in line to make about $7.7 million next season, the average of the top five salaries at the position.
MORE FRANCHISE TAGS: These players were tagged (projected 2012 salaries in parentheses): Bears running back Matt Forte ($7.7 million), 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson ($6.2 million), Bengals kicker Mike Nugent and Browns kicker Phil Dawson ($3.8 million), Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes (more than $10 million) and Redskins tight end Fred Davis ($5 million). Also, the Cardinals offered defensive end Calais Campbell a nonexclusive franchise tag and can negotiate through July 16 with the former Miami standout.
STEELERS: Two veterans on defense, linebacker James Farrior and end Aaron Smith, will be released before the next league year begins March 13.
Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.