Payton is the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, accused of trying to cover up a system of extra cash payouts that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday called "particularly unusual and egregious" and "totally unacceptable."
Sending a message by taking a harsh stand, Goodell also banned Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season -- believed to be the first time a GM was suspended by the NFL -- 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.
"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game. We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities," said Goodell, whose league faces more than 20 concussion-related lawsuits brought by hundreds of former players. "No one is above the game or the rules that govern it."
According to the league, Payton ignored instructions from the NFL and Saints ownership to make sure bounties weren't being paid. The league also chastised him for choosing to "falsely deny that the program existed," and for trying to "encourage the false denials by instructing assistants to `make sure our ducks are in a row."'
All in all, Goodell's ruling is a real blow to the Saints, a franchise that Payton and quarterback Drew Brees revived and led to the 2010 Super Bowl title after decades of such futility that fans wore paper bags over their heads at home games.
Brees reacted quickly to the news on Twitter, writing: "I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. ... I need to hear an explanation for this punishment."
The Saints now must decide who will coach the team in Payton's place -- his suspension takes effect April 1 -- and who will make roster moves while Loomis is out. There was no immediate word from the Saints, but two candidates to take over coaching duties are defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. Spagnuolo has NFL head coaching experience; Carmichael does not, but has been with the club since 2006.
When the NFL first made its investigation public on March 2, Williams admitted to -- and apologized for -- running the program while in charge of the Saints' defense. He was hired in January by the St. Louis Rams; head coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday he'll probably use a committee of coaches to replace Williams in 2012.
Goodell will review Williams' status after the upcoming season and decide whether he can return.
"I accept full responsibility for my actions," Williams said in a statement issued by the Rams. "I will continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation and ... I will do everything possible to re-earn the respect of my colleagues, the NFL and its players in hopes of returning to coaching in the future."
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 during the season the Saints won their championship.
The NFL said the scheme involved 22 to 27 defensive players; targeted opponents included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
"The bounty thing is completely unprofessional. I'm happy the league has made it known it won't be tolerated," said left tackle Jordan Gross, Newton's teammate on the Carolina Panthers. "To think that something like that would happen -- guys trying to hurt someone to make a few extra bucks -- is just appalling. I mean we have a lot on the line, every single one of us. ... You don't want to see anyone taken out a game."
According to the league, Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked then-Vikings QB Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game. The Saints were flagged for roughing Favre twice in that game, and the league later said they should have received another penalty for a brutal high-low hit from Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray that hurt Favre's ankle. He was able to finish the game, but the Saints won in overtime en route to the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance.
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 was found in New Orleans.
In a memo to the NFL's 32 teams, Goodell ordered owners to make sure their clubs are not offering bounties now. Each club's principal owner and head coach must certify in writing by March 30 that no pay-for-performance system exists.
Punishment for any Saints players involved will be determined later, because the league is still reviewing the case with the NFL Players Association.
"While I will not address player conduct at this time, I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players -- including leaders among the defensive players -- embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players," Goodell said.
The discipline for the Saints' involvement in the bounty scheme is more far-reaching and unforgiving than what Goodell came up with in 2007, when the New England Patriots cheated by 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."
As recently as this year, Payton said he was entirely unaware of the bounties -- "a claim contradicted by others," the league said. And according to the investigation, Payton received an email before the Saints' first game in 2011 that read, "PS Greg Williams put me down for $5000 on Rogers (sic)." When Payton was shown that email by NFL investigators, he acknowledged it referred to a bounty on Rodgers, whose Packers beat the Saints in Week 1.
The league said that in addition to contributing money to the bounty fund, Williams oversaw record-keeping, determined payout amounts and recipients, and handed out envelopes with money to players. The NFL said Williams acknowledged he intentionally misled NFL investigators when first questioned in 2010, and didn't try to stop the bounties.
Vitt was aware of the bounties and, according to the league, later admitted he had "fabricated the truth" when interviewed in 2010.
Loomis knew of the bounty allegations at least by February 2010, when he was told by the league to end the practice. But the NFL said he later admitted he didn't do enough to determine if there were bounties or to try to stop them.