By HOWARD FENDRICH, AP Pro Football Writer
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended without pay for the 2012 season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was banned indefinitely on Wednesday because of the team's bounty program that targeted opposing players.
Handing down sweeping and serious punishment for a system that paid out thousands of dollars when hits knocked specific opponents out of games, Goodell also suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season, and assistant coach Joe Vitt for the first six games.
In addition, Goodell fined the Saints $500,000 and took away their second-round draft picks this year and next.
After the NFL first made its investigation public on March 2, Williams admitted to -- and apologized for -- running the program as the Saints' defensive coordinator from 2009-11. He was hired by the St. Louis Rams this offseason.
Goodell will review Williams' status after the upcoming season and decide whether he can return to the league.
The Saints now must decide who will coach the team while Payton is barred, his suspension is effective April 1, and who will make roster moves while Loomis is out. After the NFL made clear that punishments were looming, Payton and Loomis took the blame for violations that they acknowledged "happened under our watch" and said Saints owner Tom Benson "had nothing to do" with the bounty pool, which reached as much as $50,000 in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
The NFL said payoffs went to 22 to 27 defensive players for inflicting game-ending injuries on targeted opponents, including quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently -- although not on the same scale as the NFL found in New Orleans.
Punishment for any Saints players involved will be determined later, because the league is still reviewing the case with the NFL Players Association.
So far, though, the discipline for the Saints' involvement in the bounty scheme is more far-reaching than what Goodell did in 2007, when the NFL came down on the New England Patriots for illegally videotaping an opponent. Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000, stripped a first-round draft pick, and docked their coach, Bill Belichick, $500,000 for what was known as "Spygate."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)