Let's just say, I wasn't surprised when the self-aggrandizing Saints became embroiled in a scandal so tempestuous it may make Spygate - and the penalties handed down in its wake - pale in comparison.
I don't think anyone in Charlotte believes New Orleans has any credibility left at all after years of cheap shots - cite Roman Harper's flagrant late hit on Steve Smith after he scored in last year's first game - and sickening egotistical displays - cite last year's particularly distasteful display of running up the score and padding the stat sheets in the regular season finale.
However, our bitter division rival are about to be called out on the red carpet for flying in the face of league rules again and again, and in fact staked their reputation as a defense that had bad intentions toward the offense's skill players when they stepped on the field. All that is fine and good, but players and coaches putting contract hits out on opposing quarterbacks behind the scenes and rewarding players financially for intentionally injuring other players isn't attempting to gain a competitive disadvantage - it's outright criminal activity.
Details that have come out following the League investigation into the Saints "Bounty System" suggest players were rewarded $1,000 for delivering a blow that resulted in the opposing player being carted from the field and $1,500 to "knock out" an opposing player - with these payments being doubled or tripled after the team reached the playoffs.
All I have to say is Head Coach Sean Payton's infamous "Make the Old Man Afraid to Come Out in the Rain" speech to his team during halftime of the 2009 NFC Championship Game against Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings MUST BE seen in an entirely different light knowing there was a cash reward on the table.
According to USA Today reporter Jarrett Bell, who cited an unnamed source associated with the league investigation in today's article "Expect Saints, Gregg Williams to get a bountiful punishment," the punishment could very well exceed the $500,000 fine levied against New England Coach Bill Belichek and the first round pick forfeited by the team in the aftermath of Spygate.
"(T)he commissioner views the Saints' case as a critical opportunity to underscore the league's burgeoning emphasis on safety and need to change a culture that sometimes promotes injuries, another sign a significant penalty could be coming," Bell reports, pointing out another unnamed source recently told the Washington Post the suspensions could go half the season or the entire way.
It also goes on to read any draft picks forfeited by the team could come as early as next year's draft - 2013 - which means the Saints would go at least two years with no first round selection in the draft after trading away this year's pick to move up and take Running Back Mark Ingram in the first round last year.
As others have pointed out, this scandal could mean the end of New Orleans dominance in the head-to-head matchup. As a matter of fact, losing standouts from their defense over the last three years for eight to 16 weeks could very well spoil the team's entire season.
Furthermore, the talent drain of consecutive years with no first round pick - and we can only pray the League Office sees fit to strip them of two top selections in 2013 and 2014 - could set the organization back years, and herald in a reprisal of Saints fans wearing bags over their heads to attend home games.
Quarterback Drew Brees reading the writing on the wall and splitting for Cleveland after his franchise tender would be the last nail in the coffin.
This means the Panthers could be primed to take the proverbial "Catbird's Seat" of the NFC South if the team is able to leap over Atlanta next year, which most analysts already predicted would be the case. Tampa Bay doesn't appear to be a threat, at least next year, as they begin to retool their entire roster under a mildly-successful college coach who is making his first foray into the pro's.
Atlanta is also facing a lot of turnover, particularly on offense, where Running Back Michael Turner looks to be all but done, their former Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey split to take the head job in Jacksonville and one can only postulate just how damaged Quarterback Matt Ryan was by multiple chokes down the stretch last year and previously in the playoffs.
The skies are looking more blue for the Panthers by the moment, even while a storm is gathering on the Gulf of Mexico.