NFC South: Scott Fujita

NFC South afternoon update

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
3:17
PM ET
Darrelle Revis and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been dominating the news, but let's take a quick spin through some odds and ends from around the rest of the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

In his latest mock draft, D. Orlando Ledbetter has the Falcons taking tight end Zach Ertz at No. 30. We’re doing our Blog Network mock draft Tuesday. I view Ertz as a possibility, but he’s not at the top of my list for Atlanta at the moment.

The Falcons announced Tuesday afternoon that they have released receiver Kerry Meier.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

In his latest Insider mock draft , Todd McShay gives the Panthers Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. In his latest Insider mock draft , Mel Kiper gives the Panthers Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. I’m thinking there is a very good chance I could take either one of them in Tuesday’s mock draft. But I also am not ruling out the possibility of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Linebacker Scott Fujita signed a one-day contract (from Peru) so he officially could retire as a member of the Saints. Fujita was with New Orleans from 2006 through 2009.

The New York Jets reportedly have offered a sixth-round pick for running back Chris Ivory. But the Saints might try to hold out a bit and get a fifth-round choice.

Steve Gleason providing inspiration

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
5:26
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- They’re having a Super Bowl here Sunday, but the best show of the week came Wednesday afternoon.

Adults cried tears of sorrow and joy, reporters violated the time-honored tradition of not clapping at news conferences and a clear winner emerged.

That was Team Gleason -- and, by extension, someday maybe the whole world.

[+] EnlargeSteve Gleason
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertFormer Saints player Steve Gleason, who is suffering from amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), leads a tour through Team Gleason House.
The setting was the formal announcement that Chase has donated $350,000 to the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living. Team Gleason starts with Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints player who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, but likely added scores of more members with the emotional ceremony.

“This is an effort bigger than me, the blocked punt, the city of New Orleans and the Super Bowl ... bigger than football,’’ Gleason said using voice technology powered by his eyes.

Technology is the key to what Gleason and his team are doing. They’re building a facility for people with ALS that will be stocked with the latest in technology.

“It will allow them to be productive and to live with purpose,’’ Gleason said.

The living with purpose part is central to all this. Gleason and former teammate Scott Fujita, who lost an uncle to the disease 17 years ago, said that too many people have given up after receiving an ALS diagnosis.

“This is a disease that for far too long has been ignored and underfunded,’’ Fujita said. “That’s unacceptable.’’

That pretty much was the attitude Gleason took when he received his diagnosis.

“I did not want to fade away quietly,’’ Gleason said.

There’s no way that’s going to happen. Gleason is a New Orleans icon. That was assured the moment he made a critical punt block in the first game the Saints played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“At that moment, we transformed ourselves from losers to winners,’’ New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu said.

But Gleason’s link to the city he called home has become even stronger since the public became aware of his illness. Gleason has become a point of pride for an entire region because of the courage he’s shown. But he wants to be more than that.

“I believe this can be done regionally, nationally and even globally,’’ Gleason said.

After sitting there and listening to Gleason and his team talk about their plans, I have no doubt that’s possible. In fact, I believe Gleason’s work will have a global impact.

Team Gleason’s slogan is “Inspiring Innovation."

The innovation part is impressive. The inspiration part might be even more impressive.
I just finished reading the entire order by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that vacated player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty matter.

Tagliabue’s ruling is very lengthy (22 pages), so if you don’t have time to read it all, let me summarize it and provide some highlights.

First off, Tagliabue makes it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he found current commissioner Roger Goodell’s findings that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program to be accurate. Tagliabue said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove engaged in conduct detrimental to the game, although he ruled that former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita did not take part in detrimental conduct.

Tagliabue criticized the behavior of New Orleans players that took part in the bounty program, but, as I read the ruling, it became very clear that he’s shifting most of the blame to coaches and the front office.

The biggest theme I saw as I went through the document was Tagliabue pointing to the behavior of coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis as being way out of bounds.

Below are some excerpts where Tagliabue addresses that theme:
  • “The Program eventually led to allegations of a bounty being placed on (former Minnesota quarterback Brett) Favre. Making matters far more serious -- as well as challenging for Commissioner Goodell and League investigators -- Saints’ coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation into the Program and the alleged bounty.’’
  • “These suspensions thus deprived the Saints of vitally important coaching and leadership talent, and they represented a severe competitive penalty for the Saints’ team, its fans and indirectly for the New Orleans / Gulf Coast region. Commissioner Goodell’s findings and the resulting suspensions of these Saints’ personnel are final and no longer subject to appeal.’’
  • “There is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light.
  • “It is important to note that Commissioner Goodell has been forced to address the issues of misconduct by some individuals in the Saints’ organization since early 2010 to the present. Due to the indefensible obstruction of justice by Saints’ personnel, which included admitted efforts of coaches to mislead or otherwise deny the existence of a bounty or the Program, a disciplinary process that should have taken weeks is verging on three years."
  • “Vitt admitted to NFL investigators in 2012 that he “fabricated the truth” when he spoke to an NFL investigator in March 2010 about whether there had been a bounty on Favre. He later claimed that his admitted fabrication was just “stretching the truth” because he failed to describe for investigators the emotionalism of the defensive team meeting the night before the NFC Championship Game."
  • “There is no question that Coach Williams and other coaches orchestrated the Program to incentivize cart-offs and knockouts; carefully choreographed defensive team meetings, including presenting graphic slide presentations showing injuries to opposing players; ensured that any player who would speak at team meetings was adequately prepared or supported; and generally created an atmosphere in the 2009 season and playoffs that suggested to Saints’ players that offering a $10,000 bounty to injure an opposing player was permissible behavior."

NFL walks away from Saints fight

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
2:40
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Jonathan VilmaDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma and other players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal have had their penalties overturned by Paul Tagliabue.
Let me get this straight.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has found that current commissioner Roger Goodell was spot on in his finding of facts in the New Orleans Saints bounty saga? But Tagliabue has vacated all player discipline?

That’s more than a little contradictory. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

Tagliabue is agreeing with Goodell that the Saints ran a bounty program for three years, but Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita no longer are facing suspensions.

Heck, they probably won't even face fines, unless Goodell oversteps Tagliabue -- but I think Goodell is planning on staying in his own lane now.

“My affirmation of commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,’’ Tagliabue said in part of his statement. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.’’

Sounds to me like Tagliabue and the NFL are taking the easy way out of this one. They’re pointing their fingers squarely at coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

There’s one huge difference between the coaches and general manager and the four players: The players are represented by the NFL Players Association, which challenged every step of the process, even though you could make a case that the union was siding with the best interest of four players over the safety of hundreds of others.

The NFLPA appealed every decision, and it ultimately won. Vilma doesn’t have to face a season-long suspension. Smith doesn’t have to miss eight games. Hargrove, who is currently out of the league, doesn’t face a seven-game suspension. Fujita, who might have suffered a career-ending injury this season, doesn’t face a one-game suspension.

The league still is saying the players did what the league alleged from the start, and Tagliabue’s statement reiterates that he found convincing evidence that there was a bounty on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game of the 2009 season.

But the players aren’t getting suspended, they’re not losing paychecks and they’re not getting fined. They’re getting off pretty much free, except for whatever damage was done to their reputations by this whole sordid saga.

That damage was significant, and we might not have heard the last of it on that front. Vilma still has a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. If I’m Vilma, I’m not dropping that lawsuit.

Vilma has shown that you can take on what was supposed to be an almighty commissioner and win. It’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit because you have to prove intent to put out statements you knew were untrue, but Vilma is on a roll, so why not continue pursuing it?

Vilma’s attorney, Peter R. Ginsberg, already has said the defamation suit isn’t going away.

“We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension,’’ Ginsberg said in a statement. “On the other hand, commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.’’

Maybe Vilma can get the NFL to keep backtracking and say there was no bounty on Favre, because it sure looks like the league doesn’t want to fight anymore.

Apparently, the league’s approach now is to just blame it all on Loomis, who already has served an eight-game suspension, and Vitt, who already has served a six-game suspension. And put even more blame on Payton, who is serving a season-long suspension, and Williams, who is banned indefinitely.

Those four are the easy targets because they exhausted their appeals long ago. The only option they had was to appeal their decision to one judge. That was Goodell, back in the spring, and he upheld his own punishments and the clock on those suspensions started ticking.

But the hands of the clock on player punishments were tied up by constant appeals and Vilma’s lawsuit.

Makes you wonder whether Payton, Loomis, Vitt and Williams might have taken a different tack if they knew in the spring what they know now.

There’s no absolute vindication for anyone because Tagliabue and the league still are saying the Saints ran a bounty program.

But one group of the alleged culprits is walking away without any punishment, and the other already has served or is serving its punishment.

That’s because the players fought it and, in the end, Tagliabue grabbed the NFL by its shoulders and pulled the league out of the fight.

NFLPA asks Tagliabue to step aside

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
1:25
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The NFL Players Association just sent out a news release saying it will make a motion for former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to recuse himself from hearing the appeals of the four players that are facing suspensions in the New Orleans bounty drama.

Current commissioner Roger Goodell previously recused himself from hearing the appeals of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove. Tagliabue is scheduled to hear the appeals next week.

Throughout the process, the union has been trying to get a more neutral party to hear the appeals. We’ll see how Tagliabue responds to this. But I’ve got a feeling it still may be a long time before this situation gets resolved.

Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. The season is almost halfway over. I’m guessing that the legal maneuvering may delay any player suspensions from being served this season and it’s also possible that federal judge Ginger Berrigan might step in and throw out the suspensions.

In past proceedings, Berrigan has indicated she believes the penalties are too harsh, but she’s been hesitant to make a ruling until it’s clear if, under the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell has the jurisdiction to issue the suspensions.
TAMPA, Fla. -- After making his season debut in a 35-28 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he’s happy with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to recuse himself from hearing the appeals of player suspensions.

Goodell decided to let former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue hear the appeals of Vilma, New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove on Oct. 30.

“I think it’s a good step,’’ said Vilma, who spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list. “I think it’s a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator. We expect him to do things in a neutral capacity, which would be to cross-examine some of the witnesses, allow us to see the evidence if there is more evidence and be able to have a fair hearing. If we do get that, we’ve asked for transparency from Day 1. We want evidence. We want to face our accusers and be able to cross-examine them and we want to know why they said what they said. And then go from there. Hopefully, Paul will offer us that.’’
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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has recused himself from hearing the appeals of player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty saga.

I’d say that’s at least a momentary victory for Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita.

The players had been asking Goodell to recuse himself and claiming that he is biased and wouldn’t be able to give them a fair hearing on their appeals. I think this also could set a precedent that might limit Goodell’s power to be the sole judge and jury in player discipline. That’s something players fought for, but didn’t get, in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. This doesn't help Goodell's public image, especially on the same day that former Minnesota defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy accused the commissioner of being a liar for saying Kennedy was a "whistleblower'' on the bounty program.

Goodell said he has appointed former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to hear the appeals.

That brings the question of if the appeals really can be fair. Goodell worked for Tagliabue for years and the two are close. When Tagliabue retired, Goodell had his blessing to be the successor.

“To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process,’’ Goodell said in a statement. “Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue’s decisions.”

Tagliabue will hear the appeals Oct. 30.

At the very least, getting a fresh set of eyes and ears on the appeals at least gives the appearance that the players are getting a fair shake. At most, it might convince federal judge Ginger Berrigan, who has implied she thinks that Vilma’s suspension was too harsh, that this case could go beyond Goodell’s jurisdiction and into her jurisdiction.

There still are likely to be a lot of twists and turns in this saga, but I'd say right now things have swung in favor of the players.

Around the NFC South

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
10:37
AM ET
Let’s take a look at the Friday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Scott Reynolds writes that middle linebacker Mason Foster is prospering in his second season. That’s a wonderful sign for a young team that’s looking for bright spots. It’s also an early indication the coaching staff and front office were right to leave Foster in the middle. There was some temptation to draft Luke Kuechly and there was at least a flirtation with veteran free-agent Curtis Lofton, who wound up in New Orleans.

Martin Fennelly writes that, despite their 1-3 record, the Bucs are much more competitive than last season. He’s right. The Bucs have been in every game and, had a couple of plays gone differently, there record could be much better. I take that as a sign that coach Greg Schiano has this team on the right path. It might take time to turn the corner. But I’m seeing the same thing from this team that I saw from the Bucs when Tony Dungy first took over and from the Panthers when John Fox took over -- gradual improvement.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that, if the Saints are going to turn around their season (and their defense), they need free safety Malcolm Jenkins to finally play to his star potential. That’s very true. Jenkins might be the biggest mystery in the NFC South. For the past few seasons, I’ve been waiting for him to have a breakout year. Scouts and coaches around the league say he has the talent to be a big-time playmaker. I thought Jenkins might start to shine in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s new scheme. But, so far, Jenkins really hasn’t been a factor.

Ed Werder previously reported that linebacker Jonathan Vilma has filed an appeal of his season-long suspension. As you probably expected, it's now being reported that current New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove also have appealed their suspensions.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Jonathan Jones has a good overview of the Lisfranc foot injury, the same injury that will sideline center Ryan Kalil the rest of the season. It’s a fairly common injury and will require surgery. But Carolina team doctor Robert Anderson is considered one of the world’s top surgeons for this type of injury.

ATLANTA FALCONS

With backup tight end Michael Palmer out with an injury the past two games, Tommy Gallarda has done a nice job filling in. He’s been used mainly as a blocker, but also is getting some opportunities as a receiver.

Defensive tackle Corey Peters, who has been on the physically unable to perform list, is eligible to start practicing next week. But I’d look for the Falcons to wait a bit on their three-week window on Peters. They have a bye next week and won’t be doing much practicing. Even then, I think it might take Peters a few weeks to get on the field. Coach Mike Smith said it’s going to take Peters some time to get into football shape.

Goodell's letter to Jonathan Vilma

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
5:36
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We already shared with you part of a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, explaining the decision to uphold his four-game suspension.

Goodell also decided to uphold the season-long suspension of New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, although Vilma will be allowed to keep his weekly checks for six weeks on the physically unable to perform list.

Goodell’s letter to Vilma is much longer than the one he sent to Smith, so I’ll do my best to trim it up and include the most important items.

Here’s some of what Goodell wrote to Vilma:
“You confirmed that cart-offs and knockouts were part of a broader program in place among the Saints’ defensive players. You confirmed that these terms referred to plays in which an opposing player has to leave the game for one or more plays. You confirmed that, as (assistant head coach Joe) Vitt testified, an opposing player’s need for smelling salts under a trainer’s care was a consequence of the kind that the program sought to achieve and for which players were offered cash rewards from the incentive pool.’’

Goodell also went into detail and said a bounty system was in place during the playoffs at the end of the 2009 season.
“I also find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by offering a substantial financial incentive to any member of the defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the Saints’ 2009 NFC playoff game against the Vikings.’’

Goodell also wrote that there was credible evidence Vilma made a similar pledge about Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, but said he didn’t need to go into further detail because he already had evidence of one pledge of a reward to hurt an opponent.

Many New Orleans fans have labeled former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely, and former assistant coach Mike Cerullo, as "snitches,'' although maybe they were simply telling the truth. Goodell acknowledged both men provided details of the bounty program and said he found their versions credible.
“I am not persuaded by any suggestion that either Mr. Williams or Mr. Cerullo had an incentive to testify falsely, under penalty of perjury, about such conduct by you or by any other player. With respect to Coach Williams, you and he have repeatedly spoken highly of each other, and nobody has identified any reason why he would make false charges against the Saints or you in particular. In that respect, it is telling that even though he had already left the Saints and signed a contract to be the defensive coordinator for the Rams, coach Williams continued to deny the existence of the program in its entirety, and acknowledged the program and his role in it only after detailed questioning by our investigators. Equally important, neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Cerullo was made aware of the substance of the information provided by the other in the investigation; as one example, each independently volunteered to investigators that the bounty that you pledged with respect to Mr. Favre was in the specific amount of $10,000.’’

Aside from the statements from Williams and Cerullo, Goodell also said others, including Vitt, former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, talked about a meeting in which things got “out of hand’’ and pledges were made for big plays.
“Those statements support the written declarations, made under penalty of perjury, by Coach Williams and Mr. Cerullo about the events of that evening. In contrast, your statement that nothing out of the ordinary happened and that no pledges were made by anyone at that meeting is inconsistent with the information provided by other players and is simply not persuasive.

“I find, based on all of these facts and the entire record described above, that you did, in fact, pledge money to any teammate who injured or disabled Mr. Favre to an extent that he would not be able to continue playing in the playoff game. I recognize that you and some of your teammates have denied that you made such a pledge or claim not to recall your doing so, but I am persuaded, based on the entirety of the record before me, that you did so. And I find that such a pledge or any similar incentive is conduct detrimental.”

Just when it seemed things were starting to look up for the New Orleans Saints, the franchise got another big blow.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports the initial season-long suspension for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and four-game suspension for defensive end Will Smith, which had been put on temporary hold just before the start of the regular season, have been put back in place. The only change for the current Saints is that Vilma will be able to keep his game checks while on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games of the season.

The other changes are for former New Orleans players Scott Fujita (now with the Browns) and Anthony Hargrove (out of the league). Fujita’s suspension has been reduced from three games to one game. Hargrove’s eight-game suspension has been lightened to seven games.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was asked by an appeals board to review his disciplinary decisions to make sure they weren’t related to the salary cap, came back with a firm ruling that the suspensions were due to conduct detrimental to the game.

I wouldn’t have expected any other result from Goodell, who has dug in his heels firmly since the NFL announced March 2 that it had found the Saints were running a three-year bounty program.

Goodell has an entire league to protect and the suggestion he let a bounty program go with little or no punishment could be disastrous to the NFL as it faces thousands of concussion lawsuits. Goodell made a strong statement once and he did it again Tuesday.

Goodell previously suspended coach Sean Payton for the entire season, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams also was suspended indefinitely. Other than an appeal to Goodell, there was nothing Payton, Loomis and Vitt could do because they didn’t fall under the umbrella of the NFL Players Association.

The NFLPA went all out to protect the players, appealing the suspensions and helping to get a temporary restraining order. Vilma’s attorney also helped tie things up by filing a defamation lawsuit against Goodell.

But Goodell apparently has weathered the storm and I have no doubt he met extensively with his legal team before reinstating the suspensions.

I’m sure it’s possible (probably likely) more appeals could be filed and this thing could drag on longer. But at this point, why?

The season is approaching the halfway point and it already has been ruined for the Saints. Even with Smith, they went 1-4. Even if Vilma’s suspension were lifted, there’s no guarantee he would be healthy enough to come off the physically unable to perform list this season.

Vitt and Loomis are almost finished with their suspensions. Payton is approaching the halfway point of his. Smith should just accept the suspension and serve his four games. Vilma should just sit for the rest of the season.

The Saints don’t need the bounty drama hanging over them any longer. This is a way to get it all over with.

Take the punishment and let everyone come back next year with a fresh start.

Around the NFC South

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
4:15
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Temporary NFC South Blog headquarters are set up back in the Queen City, where I soon will start looking ahead to Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and Giants.

But, first, let’s take a look at the headlines from around the rest of the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs re-signed receiver Jordan Shipley, who briefly was with the team in the preseason. Consider that an indication that receiver Preston Parker is likely to miss some time with a foot injury. Shipley showed great promise as a slot receiver with the Bengals early in his career. But he suffered a major knee injury and the Bengals released him during the preseason and the Bucs picked him up. Shipley didn’t look like he had re-gained his full speed in the preseason. But, if he can get back to full health, he could provide a nice boost for the receiving corps.

The replacement officials are getting criticized after Monday night’s game between Atlanta and Denver. But Stephen Holder points out some missed calls might have played a role in Tampa Bay’s loss to the New York Giants on Sunday. This whole situation has gotten out of hand and the quality of the game is suffering. The NFL needs to do whatever it takes to get the regular officials back to work as soon as possible.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was at the center of the bounty drama early on, but he had seemed to fade in recent months. That now has changed. Williams has been subpoenaed in the defamation lawsuit by linebacker Jonathan Vilma against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. If that case ever makes it to trial and Williams has to testify, things could get fascinating. Williams and Vilma were very close when they worked together, but Williams reportedly has given the NFL a statement that says Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone that knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game in the 2009 postseason.

A day after Vilma met with Goodell in New York, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove had their meetings with the commissioner. Former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, also was scheduled to attend. But Fujita backed out of his meeting, saying it was more important to stay in Cleveland.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn isn’t happy about losing his starting job to rookie Josh Norman. That’s understandable. Munnerlyn is a competitor and has lots of pride. But he can still turn this situation into a positive. He still is getting plenty of playing time and is only an injury away from starting again. He also is in the final year of his rookie contract. If he stays focused and performs well, he can get a shot at a starting job elsewhere next season.

Tom Sorensen writes that Carolina’s $89 million investment in contracts for running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert is worth every penny. I agree. Quarterback Cam Newton is the franchise and the passing game is very important, but Newton can be much more dangerous with good running backs behind him.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Mark Bradley writes that the Atlanta secondary might have had its finest game since the NFC Championship Game against Minnesota in the 1998 season. That’s a strong statement, but the secondary was very impressive against Denver on Monday night. The Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter. Who does that? What’s more impressive is that the Falcons did it without nickel back Christopher Owens, who missed much of the game after suffering a concussion, and were briefly without Asante Samuel, who was shaken up, but returned to the game. Backups Dominique Franks and Robert McClain stepped in and made big contributions.

Former Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, now with Denver, did not have a good homecoming Monday. Part of it was because the Broncos lost and part of it was because Brooking drew boos from the fans. That’s understandable because Brooking taunted the Falcons after he went to play for the Dallas Cowboys and fans remember that -- at least for now. However, somewhere down the road (and it will take a few more years), Brooking, who played high school and college football in Georgia, will end up being remembered as one of the most popular Falcons ever.

Podcast: Schefter on lifted suspensions

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
4:20
PM ET
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter says suspended players Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita won a major legal victory and are eligible to play on Sunday. The NFL will appeal. The ramifications are enormous here.

Saints' player suspensions lifted

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
4:02
PM ET
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The New Orleans Saints have scored their first victory in a long, long time.

After going through arguably one of the harshest offseasons any pro sports franchise has ever faced, the Saints got some very good news Friday afternoon.

A three-member appeals panel has overturned the player suspensions that stemmed from what the NFL said was a three-year bounty program. The decision says NFL commissioner Roger Goodell only can reconsider discipline if there is evidence of intent to injure, and that evidence has to show there was more than a performance pool.

Current Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been given a season-long suspension, and defensive end Will Smith was suspended for the first four games. Former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove also drew suspensions. But all of those suspensions are now vacated.

“Victory is mine!!!!" Vilma wrote on his Twitter account.

Vilma has maintained his innocence all along, and repeatedly insisted the Saints did not run a bounty program. But the victory doesn’t belong just to Vilma.

It’s a big win for the Saints. The NFL released a statement saying that pending further consideration from Goodell, "the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend." So presumably the Saints now can use Smith, their top pass-rusher, in Sunday’s season opener against Washington.

It isn’t immediately clear if Vilma will be able to play. Prior to the start of his suspension, Vilma was rehabbing an injured knee and it’s not known if he’s healthy enough to play. It’s possible Vilma could open the season on the physically unable to perform list.

Video: NFLPA asks for restraining order

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
11:39
AM ET


Adam Schefter talks about the chances that Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove will be allowed to play this Sunday.

Around the NFC South

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
8:51
AM ET
As we count down to the start of the regular season, let's take a look at the Wednesday morning headlines from around the division.

ATLANTA FALCONS

As he gets ready for Sunday’s return to Arrowhead Stadium, tight end Tony Gonzalez reflected on his 12 years in Kansas City. He talked a lot about 1998, which certainly wasn’t his best season. Gonzalez dropped 17 passes that year. That prompted him to start reading inspirational books, seeking advice from veterans and staying after practice to catch passes. The result was the drops stopped and Gonzalez has caught more passes than all but one player (Jerry Rice) in NFL history.

Speaking of Atlanta tight ends, Tommy Gallarda made the roster and is third on the depth chart behind Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. But I think you’ll see a fair amount of Gallarda. He is Atlanta’s best blocking tight end.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said his expectations for defensive tackle Peria Jerry were “in limbo’’ entering training camp. Jerry had struggled since suffering a knee injury early in his rookie season (2009). But Nolan said Jerry has had an impressive preseason. That should help, because Jerry is expected to start with Corey Peters out for at least the first six games of the regular season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Special teams were a problem area last season, so the Panthers made a bunch of changes in the offseason. The results weren’t apparent in the preseason, but coach Ron Rivera said he’s confident the special teams will be better in the regular season. They better be. The Panthers made changes at kicker and punter and plan to play several starters extensively on special teams. If the performance isn’t any better, the Panthers won’t have any excuses.

Although the Panthers arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and will practice in Bradenton starting Wednesday, a team of staff members have stayed back at Bank of America Stadium. Team president Danny Morrison said those staffers are helping behind the scenes with the Democratic National Convention and will join the team in Florida on the weekend.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett caught up with suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who is helping coach his team’s youth-league football team. Payton said he’s kept a close eye on the Saints throughout the preseason, but largely has stayed quiet on the league-imposed suspensions. Payton said he, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis are in a different position than the players, because they don’t have a union to challenge the NFL. He said his ultimate goal is to get reinstated at the right time, and he’s received no indications the league would consider reducing his suspension.

The NFL Players Association is making a last-ditch effort to get a temporary restraining order that would stop suspensions for New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and two other former Saints (Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove) before the season opens. A similar motion previously was filed for linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The union is arguing irreparable damage will be done to the players if they’re suspended at the start of the season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

At least according to the latest unofficial depth chart put out by the team, Preston Parker has lost his job as the No. 1 punt and kickoff returner. Sammie Stroughter is listed as the top punt returner and Michael Smith as the top kickoff returner. If the depth chart is accurate, it’s not a huge surprise. Parker has struggled with returns and the Bucs might have been forced to keep Stroughter over receiver Tiquan Underwood because they wanted to make sure they had someone dependable to field punts.

Coach Greg Schiano and co-chairman Bryan Glazer asked fans to help give the Bucs a home-field advantage at Raymond James Stadium. The team has struggled to get good attendance in recent years, and Bucs’ fans are sometimes outnumbered by those of opponents. The Bucs have repeatedly said this offseason that they want to reconnect with their fan base. They’re doing their part so far, but the next step is to win consistently.

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