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League, union now have chance to start over, meet in bounty middle

Boiled down, Friday's developments involving the overturned player suspensions that stemmed from the Saints bounty probe have created an opening to end this confusing and controversial chapter in NFL history. But it won't amount to anything unless the two combatants decide to pursue it.

When the internal CBA-created three-judge panel on Friday afternoon overturned the suspensions of four players that resulted from the investigation into the bounty program the league says the Saints operated, it did so with the crucial caveat that the matter will go back to Goodell for further consideration and clarification regarding the specific lines of his jurisdiction in the case. It may wind up changing nothing. But there's also the possibility, perhaps slight, that closure in this messy spectacle could result from this latest plot twist.

The chance to re-consider the Saints penalties and their fallout is an opportunity both sides would be wise to seize upon. The panel didn't explicitly say so, but there is now room for settlement talks that could perhaps bear fruit. But both sides have to be willing to meet in the middle, with the goal of moving on and getting past one of the most contentious stand-offs the NFL has ever experienced.

For Goodell, it's a chance to take a more reasonable stance regarding his discipline of the four players he singled out: Jonathan Vilma, who got a year's suspension, Anthony Hargrove, who received eight games, Will Smith (four games) and Scott Fujita (three). Goodell might choose to not alter anything about his previous decisions, but if he goes that route, he'll be missing an opportunity.

Many felt his original penalties were too harsh, especially in Vilma's case, and were examples of the league either over-reacting or over-reaching in a matter that turned out to be a lot less cut and dried than originally thought. Goodell might not care about his reputation or the perception of him among players at this point, but a little leniency in regards to reducing suspensions might go a long way toward re-establishing the sense of fairness some believe he lost sight of in the Saints scandal.

As for the players, while they have maintained their total innocence in fighting the suspensions, it's clear that some kind of illegal program was going on in New Orleans for the past three seasons, under the direction of departed defensive coordinator Greg Williams. I've never been able to buy that logic; it wasn't all just a big misperception.

The answer to the intent to injure vs. pay for performance question might forever be in the eye of the beholder, and truly represents a murky gray area that's perhaps open to honest debate. But six months into this story, I haven't gotten the sense that anyone's completely blameless in light of the details that have been revealed about the inner workings of the Saints defense. It's just a saying, but where there's that much smoke, usually there really is some fire.

That's why whatever the outcome of the Saints saga, I don't think either side has the right to try and play a zero-sum game. Neither the NFL or the players involved deserve an all-or-nothing "win'' in this case. I don't think the league's investigation was mistake-free by any stretch of the imagaination, but I also don't believe the players are total innocents, their claims and legal maneuvering notwithstanding.

It's almost impossible, of course, to be optimistic that the NFL or the four suspended players are in the mood to meet in the middle, given the tenor of the relationship between the league and its players (and their union) these days. There's a lot at stake for both the commissioner, in terms of the discipling authority of his office, and the players, who have had their careers interrupted and reputations damaged by this episode.

If they choose to see it, both sides have something to gain by settling their different interpretations of what happened in New Orleans from 2009-2011 and moving on. The commissioner can get back to the many other issues that confronts his office -- like the referees lockout, for one -- and perhaps strike a blow against the players' perception that he's a hanging judge of an executive bent on power trips.

As for the players, if their suspensions were to be reduced during this pause to reconsider, they'd be closer to being back on the field than they were under the original suspensions. No, it's not the total victory they're after, but in this case, a compromise is better than the claim that their case never had the chance to be heard. Good deals make both sides walk away believing they got the best of it. The players would have gotten the commissioner to cede ground on the discipline front, and that hasn't happened too often in Goodell's six-year tenure.

A settlement between the two sides clearly remains a long shot. This fight has only grown more bitter with every month it has been waged. But the door on Friday was left cracked if Goodell and the players choose to go through it and head in the direction of ending this showdown. Before this saga goes on any longer, and gets any costlier for either side, it's an opening worth investigating.

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