Sean Payton is still set to be a free agent after his one-year suspension ends. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
For the four players punished by Roger Goodell following the NFL's investigation into an alleged New Orleans bounty program, Tuesday marked a definite victory.
The Saints as a franchise, however, will find very little comfort in Paul Tagliabue's ruling.
The former NFL commissioner, appointed to hear the appeals in this case after Goodell recused himself, ruled that Goodell's factual findings were accurate and that Anthony Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith "engaged in conduct detrimental.
"However," Tagliabue added, "this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
In other words: Tagliabue refused to punish the few for the sins of the many.
But what still stands here is the NFL's punishment of the New Orleans franchise, most notably the year-long suspension given to head coach Sean Payton. Without Payton patrolling the sidelines, the Saints have plummeted to a 5-8 record -- even as Vilma and Smith have played while the appeals process took place. The league also voided previously a contract extension Payton had reached with the Saints, meaning he is unsigned for the 2013 season.
All of those punishments stay on the books, leaving very little for the Saints to celebrate. Smith has started all 13 games and Vilma the last seven, and it hasn't prevented this disappointing season.
There's no turning back on the process now, nor do the Saints deserve any sympathy in Tagliabue's eyes. His final ruling made clear that the Saints operated outside of league rules, and he took care to specifically single out Brett Favre's injury in the 2009 NFC championship game.
"I find there is more than enough evidence to support commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty (on Brett Favre)," Tagliabue said.
Tagliabue left the door open for fines to be handed out to Hargrove, Smith and Vilma -- Scott Fujita, the fourth player pinpointed in this investigation, was cleared entirely -- but finally there appears to be a little closure on this issue. That is, unless the black mark placed on the Saints' franchise extends an underachieving 2012 season into an extended drought. The key to that puzzle, given how this year has unraveled, appears to be Payton.
Tagliabue's verdict does nothing to erase the distractions that have haunted New Orleans all season, doesn't return its head coach and still doesn't prevent Payton from bolting for Dallas or some other potentially available head coaching job in the offseason -- Tagliabue did not back down one iota from the league's criticism of the Saints' leadership.
"The decisions have made clear," the league said in response to Tagliabue's ruling, "that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years ..."
Payton has spent all of this season paying for those missteps, and the Saints have faltered as a result. So while Tuesday's news will come as very welcome for Fujita, Hargrove, Smith and Vilma, the Saints still may need more time to pick up the pieces.