In many ways, the "kill the head" speech by former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sounds like typical pregame, fire-up-the-troops rhetoric, but former and current players say there are several instances where the now-suspended coach crossed the line.
The speech has added new fire to an already scalding scandal in which the NFL alleges that the Saints administered a bounty program aimed at taking out opposing players.
The day before the Saints' January 14 playoff clash with the San Francisco 49ers, Williams started his speech by instructing his team to never apologize for how they play. No big deal.
Williams goes on to say, "Kill the head, the body will die," a twist on the frequent tutelage of boxer "Smokin'" Joe Frazier. It sounds nefarious given the recent attention given to concussions in football, but it could probably be written off as normal locker room bravado.
Except, and this is a big except, Williams starts naming players by name, and what's more, he starts naming anatomy: tight end Vernon Davis' ankle, running back Frank Gore's head, quarterback Alex Smith's chin and wide receiver Michael Crabtree's "outside ACL."
Former Detroit Lions cornerback Lamar Campbell, who retired in 2004, told the Detroit Free Press that Williams' speech began like many that Campbell heard during his playing days. Listening to it made him reminisce at first.
“You hear, ‘Knock the (expletive) out of him,’ and, ‘Kick his ass,’ and I love, ‘They’re going to be shocked with our contact, they’re going to be shocked with our speed, they’re going to be shocked with the way we strip,’ ” Campbell said Thursday. “I felt nostalgic reading it and then I get to a line that says, ‘Let’s see how many times we can bull rush and get that outside ACL,’ and it’s like, hold up. You had me and then, ‘Go get this guy’s ACL?’ Are you serious?”
Perhaps most disturbingly, Gregg Williams demands a big hit on kick returner Kyle Williams because of a recent concussion, something the New York Giants' Jacquian Williams and Devin Thomas caught heat for the following week when they said the same thing.
"We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head," Gregg Williams said on the tape. "We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways."
This could simply mean Williams wants his defense in the backfield so quickly that Gore has trouble getting upfield, that he wants Gore running east and west rather than north and south. Again, probably pretty typical of the instructions that defensive coordinators give to their men.
Even Williams' invocation to "knock the f*** out of" backup running back Kendall Hunter isn't as bad as it initially sounds because he follows it with world-class hyperbole.
"He has no idea what he’s in for. When he’s on the sideline, we’ve got to turn that motherf***er over, turn their coaches over, turn the spectators over, go get that motherf***er on the sidelines."
It would be naive to think Williams was imploring his squad to cold-cock someone on the sidelines.
Williams' next imperative, though, should raise some eyebrows, if it was accurately retold by Sean Pamphilon, the documentarian who released the 12-minute audio clip of the coach's speech this week. (It should be noted that no one has publicly challenged Pamphilon's credibility since the tape was released.)
"If they max protect, if they counter gap protect and try to take a two-man route, we hit f***ing Smith right there. Remember me," Williams can be heard saying. "I got the first one. I got the first one. Go get him. Go lay that motherf***er out.
Pamphilon said Williams was pointing to his chin while urging the hit on Smith, but what's more chilling, Pamphilon wrote on his blog, is the hand sign he makes while saying, "I got the first one."
Williams pointed "beneath his chin when bringing up 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and in a chilling tone, paused and said, 'First one’s on me.' At that moment he rubbed his fingers together in a way that cannot be mistaken. He was ordering his players to maim in as many ways possible. Plain and simple. He was the only one in the room willing to go into his pocket to reward it," Pamphilon wrote.
Many former and current players say the speech carries on pretty typically until the end. Williams wants his team to dominate the line of scrimmage, he wants them to hit hard and fast, to strip the ball. He tells them "find ball, see ball, get ball' and do "whatever it takes to get on that bus, ride back to that airport and get ready for the next one."
"Respect comes from fear," he says flatly.
But he ends the speech by calling out more players and body parts:
On Kyle Williams: "We need to find out in the first two series of the game, that little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion. We need to f***ing put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide. He needs to f***ing decide."
On Crabtree: "We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake-ass prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find that out. He becomes human when you f***ing take out that outside ACL."
On Gore: "We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore’s head."
On Davis: " We need to decide how many times we can bull rush and we can f***ing put Vernon Davis’ ankles over the pile. We need to decide, and when they are fearing us, they give us the ball." (Davis suffered ankle injuries during the 2010 season.)
On Smith: "Alex Smith, in the preseason game, when you guys avalanched that motherf***er, had eyes that big. You all saw him when we got after his ass in the preseason game. We got after his ass here last year on Monday Night Football."
Pamphilon wrote in a lengthy blog post on the website for his film, "The United States of Football," that he was inspired by his friend, co-director and former Saint Steve Gleason to pursue a film on head injuries in football. Gleason was recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Being with Gleason provided Pamphilon with largely unfettered access to the Saints and their locker room, and while Pamphilon is a huge football fan, he was appalled by Gregg Williams' "puppet master" directives to target players' heads and knees, he wrote.
"It’s a coward's play to send someone off to do your malicious bidding. I’m sure many of his players would have told him this if they weren’t scared to lose their jobs or look like bitches in front of their teammates. Or if they weren’t 25 and couldn’t possibly have a fully developed perspective on life," according to his blog.
While Pamphilon defends the players who administer crushing blows as just following orders, he goes on to blame the media for vilifying the players and the NFL for betraying its employees.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the culture of violence that has helped make the NFL the most popular sporting spectacle in the country.
You can point to an NFL that was slow to make rules to protect players, a league that uses video of vicious blows to promote the game while fining the players who provided the footage. You can blame some coaches, who have put winning over a player's welfare. You can blame players who aimed to maim an opponent or remained mum when their own bell was rung. The fans are also a good scapegoat; they pay to gobble up the product, perpetuating the whole machine.
But it seems no matter how much someone loves the game – or how quick they are to defend its violence – nobody is of the notion that Williams' calls to cripple an opposing team's players didn't cross the line.
Take for instance the reaction of someone who was probably even more disturbed than anyone else: Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams, the father of the 49ers' Kyle Williams.
He said in a statement he had tremendous respect for the NFL and he doubted his son would address the situation, but he had a veiled threat for the coach who tried to put his son on a stretcher.
"Personally, suspension or not, it's probably best I'm never in a room with Gregg Williams and wonder if such an order crosses the line of the aggressive, competitive spirit we all know and love about the sport; and leans closer to a criminal act and therefore a litigious matter," the statement said.
Warren Sapp, who endured his own cheap shot controversies as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Oakland Raider defensive lineman, had much harsher words.
"This is the most heinous, egregious thing in the history of this game," Sapp, now an NFL Network analyst, told the Bay Area News Group.
Sapp seemed to disagree with Pamphilon that the players weren't culpable because they were just following orders or too young to understand.
"Not for one second would I sit in a room and listen to someone say, 'We're going to take out someone's ACL' without standing up and saying, 'What the hell are you talking about?' " he said. "The way you play defense isn't about malice. It's about putting you in fourth-and-more than you can handle."
Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, whose career was ended by cervical spinal cord injury in 1999, told the NFL Network he understands coaches get fired up before games, but Gregg Williams' call to take out Crabtree's knee was unforgivable.
“Since you were a baby you’ve understood never take out a man’s knees, and on this tape, he’s talking about taking out an ACL,” Irvin said. “I almost threw up when I heard it."
Other players took to Twitter to concur with Irvin. Green Bay Packers guard Joe Sitton said he was glad Williams, whom he dubbed a "complete douche a**hole," was suspended.
According to ESPN, Sitton elaborated in later tweets: "I want to be clear. Our sport is violent and you are supposed to hurt one another, but this guy took it over the top/trying to take someone out of a game or end a career is a chickens**t move!/we work our entire lives to make it to the NFL. And some guy wants to pay players to hurt people. NOT cool!/next thing you know some a**hole will be waiting for me by my car with a crowbar! That's some Tonya Harding s**t!"
Former Pro-Bowl Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor, who has leveled his fair share of quarterbacks, said Williams was "trippin' " and echoed Sitton's sentiments.
"Going after ACL's and heads......not cool," he tweeted. Later he wrote, "Saying someone flinches..ok. Wanting to hit everything moving and intimidate...ok. Calling someone a prima donna..fine ACL and Head... NO!"
The NFL has severely punished the Saints after finding that the team from 2009 to 2011 ran a bounty system in which cash was paid for hits that knocked opposing players out of the game. The team was fined $500,000 and two draft picks in 2012 and 2013, while the team's head coach, assistant head coach and general manager were suspended without pay for various stints this upcoming season.
Williams, who left the Saints to join the St. Louis Rams earlier this year, was suspended indefinitely. To hear Irvin tell it, no suspension for the defensive coordinator will be long enough, especially when you consider that former players are suing the league because, they allege, the NFL didn't do enough to warn them about the dangers of head injuries.
"If he is out of the league forever – forever – it will be only the right thing to do," Irvin told the NFL Network. "The commissioner, you can't let him back in."