gregg_williams_web.jpg(AP) —  The National Football League is investigating reports that the New Orleans Saints ran a bounty program that rewarded players with thousand-dollar payoffs for knocking targeted opponents out of games.

Former Saints assistant coach Gregg Williams has admitted and apologized for running the bounty program.

The Saints maintained a bounty pool of up to $50,000 the last three seasons, the NFL said. Payoffs were made for inflicting game-ending injuries on targeted players, 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.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Sunday the league is “addressing the issues raised as part of our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of the game.”

That likely means the investigation will zero in on teams that employed Williams in the past.

Before joining the Saints, Williams was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Washington and Jacksonville and the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. In January, he was hired by new St. Louis Rams coach, Jeff Fisher, to lead the defense.

“It was a terrible mistake,” Williams said in an statement Friday night shortly after the NFL released a report on the bounty program. “And we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.”

Several players around the league have said the Saints and Williams weren't the only ones with such a system. Former Redskins safety Matt Bowen said Williams had a similar bounty scheme when he was in Washington.

Aiello said the NFL would look at “any relevant info regarding rules being broken.”

No punishments have been handed out but they could include suspension, fines and loss of draft picks.

All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL also warns teams against such practices before each season.

“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance’ but also for injuring opposing players,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday in a statement. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.”

The league said 22 to 27 defensive players were involved in the program. Its findings were corroborated by multiple, independent sources. The pool amounts peaked in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Photo: Gregg Williams