In vacating the 31 games' worth of player suspensions and fines handed to four players over the Saints' bounty sanctions, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue today, in effect, slammed the Saints' coaching staff and organization for the existence of a bounty and pay-for-performance system in place during the 2009 through 2011 seasons.
Tagliabue blamed the team for the system being in place, not the players who went along with the system and funded it ... the same way judges in society sometimes find parents guilty for the actions of their law-violating children.
The players cooperated in the scheme, Tagliabue ruled, but he seemed to say that all they were doing was following orders. It's those who gave the orders under coach Sean Payton -- mainly former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- who deserve the blame for the existence of the system and how widespread on the defense it was.
"I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints' coaches found by Commissioner Goodell,'' Tagliabue's ruling said.
On first read, it's a smart decision designed to make this case go away after the eight-month-long black eye it gave the league. It affirms that Goodell was right in finding there was a pay-for-performance system, but wrong for the heavy-handed sanctions on the players. And in taking away the discipline from the players, Tagliabue, it seems, is trying to put the case to bed -- but you can be sure at least linebacker Jonathan Vilma will continue to press his case that Goodell wrongly accused him of offering his defensive teammates $10,000 to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game three years ago.
BURKE: RULING A HOLLOW VICTORY FOR SAINTS
In his ruling, issued early this afternoon, Tagliabue exonerated former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who had been suspended for three games. The other three players -- Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, still with the Saints, and free agent defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove -- had their suspensions erased. But he did not exonerate Vilma, Smith and Hargrove of wrongdoing. He ruled that the two coaches who accused Vilma of the offer before the January 2010 game, then-staff aide Mike Cerullo and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, were believable when they told Goodell Vilma made the offer.
"Neither was shown to be not credible on the specific issue of whether Vilma offered a bounty on Favre,'' Tagliabue ruled.
The ruling is a major win for Fujita, and less of one for the other players -- and Tagliabue made it clear Goodell could have had more sanctions in the case. Wrote Tagliabue: "There is evidence in the record that suggests Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints' players."
The biggest loser in the case? Not Sean Payton; despite his reputation being severely tarnished, he's such a proven winner as a head coach he'll be back in 2013, probably with the Saints. The biggest loser is Williams, who was hired by the Rams as defensive coordinator before the scandal broke. The Rams have not fired him during his indefinite suspension, but it will be very hard for the team to bring Williams back after Tagliabue's scathing report -- if the team was ever planning to bring him back anyway.