JOHN RIORDAN: Paying high price for putting the pain in America’s game

Andre Carter is quickest to his feet. He walks away from Peyton Manning’s carcass, his shoulders hunched, his fists clenched, his angry eyes darting side-to-side. Job done.

Phillip Daniels gets up a little more gingerly, wary of the possibility that a flag will be thrown, the NFL’s version of the referee’s whistle. Manning’s helmet has rolled a couple of yards away.

The Washington Redskins defensive end knows he has caught the Indianapolis Colts quarterback way too high. He knows because Manning’s upper body snapped forward alarmingly fast, like a recoiled trigger, after being dragged down by the neck while Carter took his hips off in the other direction. Two athletes coming as close as you can to ripping a human in two.

It made for grim viewing at the time but became all the more poignant when, almost five years later, Manning’s then-coach Tony Dungy told The Washington Post in September that this moment probably triggered the neck injury which had, by now, threatened the legendary player’s career.

Over the past few days, this has all taken a sinister twist. Carter and Daniels were members of Gregg Williams’ unit during his stint as defensive coach at the Redskins. It emerged on Friday that Williams was under investigation by the NFL for operating a so-called bounty system while at the New Orleans Saints.

The scandal is being dubbed “Pay for Pain”. Under the direction of Williams, and reportedly with the knowledge of head coach Sean Payton, the Saints used unofficial bonuses to reward their defensive players for dangerous tackles of varying brutality as the team won its way through to a famous Super Bowl (eventually beating the Colts, incidentally), delivering them firmly into the hearts of America, a sporting redemption for the city which had been overcome by Hurricane Katrina.

Depending on your stance, this was just token remuneration for what these powerful athletes are expected to do anyway or it was institutionalised brutality, riling up angry young men more than should ever be necessary while also straying outside salary cap rules.

Either way, the end result was making opponents hurt in the most instant replay-worthy manner possible.

Indeed, a couple of games before the Saints lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy two years ago, they beat the Arizona Cardinals in a play-off game. Veteran opposing quarterback Kurt Warner’s involvement in that clash was essentially ended by a brutal tackle from behind as he watched helplessly in the other direction after his pass had been intercepted.

Warner was naturally oblivious to the approaching tackler before being rendered oblivious to his own name. He would never play again.

Coach Williams has apologised for his system and wide-ranging punishment is sure to be meted out by the NFL. But no one with any sense is taking the sporting body’s chief Roger Goodell’s stance seriously. When he gets Williams’ head on a plate, the question will resurface: if Goodell is so concerned about player safety why demand an increase to an 18-game regular season, two more than the players are willing to be subjected to? Although they’re not willing to put in the extra shifts, the players will themselves claim openly that despite attempts at the top level to reduce the number of concussions, they have no desire to take their pain out of the game.

Even one of the more high profile victims of that title-winning New Orleans team stood up for his adversaries’ right to threaten careers.

Brett Favre was a quarterback at the Minnesota Vikings when he was repeatedly tackled by over-exuberant Saints defensive end Bobby McCray in the NFC Championship game. “It’s football,” Favre said over the weekend. “I don’t think anything less of those guys. Said or unsaid, guys do it anyway. If they can drill you and get you out (of the game), they will.”

Tomorrow Manning will be the subject of another eerie sort of scrutiny.

In a new twist on the trade/transfer deadline theme, most of the NFL and a fair chunk of American sport fans will be watching to see whether or not the Indianapolis Colts will meet their “Peyton Manning Deadline” and pay him a $28m (€21.3m) lump sum, roughly equivalent to a contract-extension and a payment which would mean his future would be officially tied to the team.

If the Colts decide against continuing the 14-year partnership with the player around whom they built so much success, both he and the Colts will be moving on and the knock-on effect will be fairly seismic.

Keeping an eye on another man’s fortune, speculating on the chances of it inflating or staying the same... it seems sordid until you try to wrap your head around all the myriad other behind-the-scenes drama.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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