DENVER — The Denver Broncos landed the shiniest horse on the coaching carousel Tuesday by agreeing to bring Sean Payton on board as the team’s next head coach.
Payton is a Super Bowl winner, carries a .631 career winning percentage and has been the proverbial white whale for many a team with a head-coaching vacancy in years past.
His track record is blemished only by the events of a decade ago, when he was suspended by the league for an entire season for his role in the so-called “Bountygate” scandal.
From 2009 – the year the Saints won the Super Bowl – to 2011, Payton’s Saints were found to have placed “bounties” on opposing players, implementing a reward system for hits that caused injuries.
So, what was Payton’s role in the scandal?
The NFL found that he was aware of the bounty program and made no effort to stop it. The league’s investigation found that Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis were guilty of “conduct detrimental” to the league, according to NFL.com.
A portion of the NFL’s statement about its findings read, according to theNew Orleans Times-Picayune:
"Although head coach Sean Payton was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the program, he was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program. He never instructed his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was improper and could not continue."
It was then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who implemented the bounty program, which involved a pool of cash that was doled out as bonus money in exchange for causing injuries to opponents, according to the league’s findings.
The payments were as much as $1,000 for an opponent who needed to be carted off of the field, and $1,500 for a “knockout” hit, according to the Times-Picayune.
Payton was suspended for the 2012 season without pay. Williams was, at the time, suspended indefinitely. Loomis was suspended without pay for eight games, and the team forfeited second-round draft picks in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
Assistant coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. Several players were suspended but later had their punishments vacated.
Payton and Loomis issued a statement in March 2012 saying they “understand the negative impact [Bountygate] has had on our game” and promised such violations of league policy “would never happen again,” according to ProFootballTalk.
(If you want to learn more about Bountygate, Bleacher Report published a comprehensive timeline of the scandal and the fallout.)
Payton would coach nine more seasons in New Orleans before stepping down in 2021.
Because he is still under contract with the Saints, the Broncos had to trade draft picks to New Orleans in order to bring him on board.