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Williams testified he wanted to stop bounties

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Williams testified he wanted to stop bounties

Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams testified that he tried to shut down the team's bounty system when the NFL began investigating but was overruled by interim Saints head coach Joe Vitt, according to transcripts from appeals hearings obtained by The Associated Press.

According to the transcripts, Williams said that then-assistant Vitt responded to a suggestion that the pay-for-pain setup be abandoned with an obscenity-filled speech about how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ``wasn't going to ... tell us to ... stop doing what won us the Super Bowl. This has been going on in the ... National Football League forever, and it will go on here forever, when they run (me) out of there, it will still go on.''

Williams and Vitt were among a number of witnesses whose testimony was heard by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who on Tuesday overturned four player suspensions in the case. Tagliabue was appointed by Goodell to handle the final round of appeals. The AP obtained transcripts of Tagliabue's closed-door hearings through a person with a role in the case.

Vitt was a Saints assistant who was banned for six games for his part in the scandal but now is filling in for head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire season. Williams was suspended indefinitely by Goodell. Others who testified included former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, the initial whistleblower and considered a key NFL witness.

Transcripts portray the former coaching colleagues, all part of the Saints' 2010 Super Bowl championship, as bitterly disagreeing with one another and occasionally contradicting how the NFL depicted the bounty system.

Vitt, Williams and Cerullo appeared separately before Tagliabue and were questioned by lawyers for the NFL and lawyers representing the players originally suspended by Goodell: Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.

Tagliabue's ruling found that ``Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation. ...''

The transcripts, which could be entered as evidence in Vilma's pending defamation case against Goodell, include numerous testy, and sometimes humorous, exchanges between witnesses and attorneys - and between Tagliabue and the attorneys.

Offering to take a lie detector test, Vitt challenged versions given by Williams and Cerullo. Vitt vowed to sue Cerullo and described Williams as ``narcissistic.'' He referred to both as disgruntled former employees who were fired, even though, publicly, the Saints said Williams' departure for St. Louis was by mutual agreement. Vitt depicted Cerullo as incompetent and said he missed work numerous times and offered bizarre, fabricated excuses for his absences.

Vitt was asked whether he oversaw Cerullo's attempts to destroy evidence related to bounties, which the NFL determined the Saints sanctioned from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars offered for hits that injured opponents and knocked them out of games.

``No. The answer is no,'' Vitt said. ``Cerullo is an idiot.''

Williams referred to the case as ``somewhat of a witch hunt.'' He said he wants to coach in the NFL again, ``took responsibility so that nobody else had to,'' and that Vilma has ``been made a scapegoat.''

Williams stood by his earlier sworn statement that Vilma pledged a $10,000 bounty on quarterback Brett Favre in the Saints' game against the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC championship. But Williams also said that the performance pool he ran was aimed at team bonding, not bounties, and that he saw a difference between asking players to hit hard legally, which he said he did, and asking them to purposely injure an opponent, which he said no one in the organization condoned.

``The game is about a mental toughness on top of a physical toughness,'' Williams testified at one point. ``You know, it's not golf.''

Williams, however, acknowledged he suggested Favre should be knocked out of the game.

``We want to play tough, hard-nosed football and look to get ready to play against the next guy. ... Brett is a friend of mine, and so that's just part of this business,'' Williams said. ``You know, at no time, you know, are we looking to try to end anybody's career.''

Williams described player pledges to the pool as ``nominal'' and said they rarely kept the money they earned, either putting it back in the pool or offering it as tips to equipment personnel. In the case of the large amounts pledged during the playoffs, Williams described it as ``air'' or ``funny money'' or ``banter,'' adding that he never actually saw any cash collected or distributed and had no idea what would have happened to the money if Cerullo collected it.

Cerullo testified that league investigators misrepresented what he told them, and that, during the playoffs following the 2009 regular season, he kept track of large playoff pledges on note pads but didn't collect the money.

Cerullo said hits for cash started with Williams telling the staff that ``Sean kind of put him in charge of bringing back a swagger to the defense ... so he wanted to brainstorm with us as coaches what we thought we could do. ... At one point in one of those meetings, Joe Vitt suggested (his previous teams) had a pay-for-play, pay-for-incentive program that the guys kind of bought into and kind of had fun with, and, you know, that was his suggestion. At that point, Gregg also admitted that other places he was at, they had the same type of thing. And at that point, Gregg kind of ran with it.''

Cerullo described pregame meetings during the playoffs, when the Saints faced quarterback Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and then Favre.

He said Vitt told players Warner ``should have been retired'' and ``we're going to end the career tomorrow of Kurt Warner.'' Cerullo also quoted Vitt as saying of Favre: ``That old man should have retired when I was there. Is he retiring, isn't he retiring - that whole (thing) is over, you know, tomorrow. ... We'll end the career tomorrow. We'll force him to retire. ...''

Cerullo testified that, once word came that the NFL was investigating, Williams told him to delete computer files about bounty amounts and that Vitt checked on his progress.

Asked what motivated him to come forward as a whistleblower with an email to the league in November 2011, Cerullo replied: ``I was angry for being let go from the Saints.''

Later, he testified: ``I was angry at Joe Vitt, and I wanted to show that I was fired for lying and I witnessed Joe Vitt lying and he still had a job. So, that was my goal of reaching out to the NFL.''

The transcripts also portray Tagliabue's command of the proceedings, including his efforts to rein in the lawyers.

``I'm going to intervene much more significantly, going forward,'' Tagliabue interjected at one point, ``because I am extremely concerned that this is getting to be cumulative, confusing and useless, and I do not preside over proceedings that are cumulative, confusing and useless.''

There also were lighter moments, such as when Tagliabue announced: ``I thought I was going to get through this proceeding only by drinking coffee. I'm getting to the point where I need a Bloody Mary.''

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

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USA TODAY Sports

Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension has been reduced to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator meaning he is eligible to return as early as Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the arbitrator’s decision.

Wilson was suspended 20 games for a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason. The suspension was announced on Oct. 3 and upheld by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Wilson’s first appeal.

Though the second appeal was technically successful in getting the suspension reduced, the lengthy process ended up costing him an extra two games as the Caps are already 16 games into the season. The good news for him is that he will recoup $378,048.78 of the over $1.2 million he was originally due to forfeit as a result of the suspension.

This marks the second suspension that Shyam Das, the neutral arbitrator, has reduced this season. Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson was suspended 27 games for domestic assault, but had his suspension reduced to 18 games after taking his appeal to the neutral arbitrator.

Tuesday’s ruling may mark the end of Wilson’s suspension and of the appeals process, but it hardly marks the end of the entire saga and controversy surrounding Wilson and his style of play. A 14-game suspension is still significant and should not be seen as vindication that Wilson did nothing wrong in the eyes of the league.

If there is another suspension, it will be longer and neither Wilson nor the Caps can afford for that to happen. Wilson still must change the way he plays or everyone is going to end up going through this entire process again and nobody wants that.

The Caps will have a morning skate at 12:30 p.m. ET which should provide more clarity on whether Todd Reirden intends to play Wilson immediately and where he could slot into the lineup.

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What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

You don’t have to watch Jakub Vrana very long to realize just how talented he is. Unfortunately for him, you also don’t have to watch very long to realize how turnover prone he can be as well.

Carelessness with puck management has been one of the glaring issues for the Caps in the early season and Vrana, as he has been for much of his young career, is certainly guilty of that.

Vrana’s combination of talent and penchant for on-ice mistakes presents a problem for head coach Todd Reirden as he has to find the right place plug him into the lineup. That challenge has thus far proven difficult.

Vrana entered the Nov. 3 game against the Dallas Stars on the top line.  After a minus-three game and a turnover in overtime that led to Dallas’ game-winning goal, he found himself on the fourth line the very next game with barely eight minutes of ice time.

“We'll continue to try to remove those glaring turnovers or defense mistakes from his game,” Reirden said recently. “I think it's something that has improved compared to prior years which is why he spent the majority of the time up with those top-six guys, but it's sometimes good for a reset with some of the bottom-six guys and then start slotting him back in.”

At 22-years-old, mistakes on the ice are to be expected. But Vrana may take that to the extreme.

Not only does Vrana commit a lot of careless turnovers, he is also guilty of taking far too many penalties. Vrana ranks third on the team with 14 penalty minutes.

Mistakes by a forward are not nearly as glaring to a coach as those by a defensemen considering the mistakes tend to happen in the offensive zone and are less likely to result in a goal for the other team. When those offensive zone mistakes lead to offensive zone penalties, however, that’s a different story.

But Vrana is simply too skilled to bury in the lineup or take out altogether. With four even-strength goals, Vrana is tied for the third-most on the team behind only T.J. Oshie (7) and Alex Ovechkin (6). Of all the forwards Reirden has cycled into the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence to play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana was the player who seemed to fit the best. He does not provide the same sort of defensive balance to the top line as Wilson does, but no one has been able to step in and adequately fill Wilson’s spot thus far. Vrana added an extra element of speed and offensive skill to an already dangerous line and seemed to show chemistry with Kuznetsov especially.

“There's some really good things that he's showing,” Reirden said. “The speed he plays with, the release of his shot, the chances he's getting, you've got to try to find ways to get him out there more.”

But Wilson will soon return to fill his top line role and Reirden will soon get his full lineup for the first time this season. Yet, almost a quarter into the season Vrana still makes it hard to find the right spot for him.

Putting Vrana on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie – if Reirden reunites Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – seems like the best fit. Backstrom and Oshie can make up for Vrana’s defensive issues and Vrana can provide speed on an otherwise slower line.

But at some point, Vrana has to cut back on the turnovers and the penalties.

“You've got to continue to show him,” Reirden said. “Continue to show him, continue to `remind him, continue to teach and help him grow and get better. That's a young player trying to become a top-six full time.”

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