SANTA CLARA The audio of Gregg Williams' profanity-laced speech to his defensive players Jan. 13 has been called the smoking gun in the bounty case against Williams and the Saints.
The former New Orleans defensive coordinator talks about making Frank Gore's head go sideways the following day in the divisional playoff game against the 49ers. He talks about going after Vernon Davis' ankles, Michael Crabtree's ACL and testing the resolve of "little receiver" Kyle Williams, who had suffered a concussion weeks earlier.
Perhaps most damning of all, Williams makes a hand gesture rubbing his thumb and forefinger together implying there is money on the table for the player who delivers a big blow to quarterback Alex Smith.
"We hit (expletive) Smith right there," Williams said while allegedly pointing to his chin. "I got the first one. I got the first one. Go get it.
"Go lay that (expletive) out."
But a true smoking gun would have been visual evidence that the Saints in the room on that Friday night in January carried out those actions on the field the following Saturday afternoon.
Maybe it was because the Saints knew the penalties monetary and otherwise for the types of dirty play Williams described far outweighed the bounty collections he had in mind.
Maybe it was because Williams' words were superseded by a code whereby one player doesn't try to ruin another's career. In the era of free agency, players have friends throughout the league. The Saints' middle linebacker that day, Jonathan Vilma, is close with Gore, for example. Both played at the University of Miami, and they hang out together in the offseason.
Yes, there was rough play from the Saints that day a knee in Gore's back here, a hand to the face mask there and there was plenty of trash talking. But the Saints were not penalized, not once.
And that's the problem with the NFL's bounty investigation. What it mostly amounts to is a mountain of tough talk from a pompous and overly aggressive defensive coordinator. There's a lot of evidence of a crime. But there's no crime.
Did the Saints hope to knock one or more of the 49ers' key offensive players out of the game? Absolutely. But so did the Giants the following week in the NFC Championship Game. They, too, talked about the concussion history of Kyle Williams, whose two fumbles on punt returns were the pivotal plays in the game.
And it wasn't as if Justin Smith or Aldon Smith or any of the 49ers defenders planned to lay Saints quarterback Drew Brees or Giants quarterback Eli Manning gently onto a bed of rose petals and goose down if they had a free shot in the playoffs.
"We were sitting there (before the NFC Championship Game) saying, 'We need to take Eli out,' " cornerback Carlos Rogers said on KNBR (680 AM). "That's how we're going to win the game. That's the person that was going to help New York win the game. You don't think our linemen, linebackers were really trying to hit him?"
The Saints are in the NFL's bull's-eye because there is so much evidence against them, because they arrogantly failed to heed warnings to stop their bounty program, and perhaps most important of all, because the league is trying to change the culture of the league by eliminating its most ruthless and destructive aspects.
Some fans and many players worry the bounty case is another example of the NFL trying to take away the violence and physical nature of the sport, that football is turning into a strawberries-and-scones tennis match.
It's a valid concern.
Violence is why we love the sport. It's what makes you feel the game in your bones even through a flat-screen television. It's what makes it quintessentially American.
But Commissioner Roger Goodell is right in wanting to move away from the more grotesque components of the game, which is everything that Gregg Williams and his speech have come to symbolize.
Every year, another former player dies far too young, takes his own life or can't find his way home after a trip to the grocery store. These are sad and worrisome aftereffects of the game. And they are a poor reflection of our society, not to mention a legal problem for the league, if they are allowed to continue.
The sport still will exist without the knockout blows.
It still can be glorious without crack-back blocks. It still will be a tough, manly-man league without the pregame speeches in which specific body parts belonging to specific players are targeted.
And it will be just fine without Gregg Williams.