NFL Nation: Saints suspensions lifted

Video: Saints react to players' return

September, 7, 2012

Saints players welcome back Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith after an appeals board overturned their suspensions in the bounty scandal.
Defending against Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday might have just become slightly easier for the Cleveland Browns.

An appeals panel has overturned the three-game suspension of Cleveland outside linebacker Scott Fujita as well as the suspensions of New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove. There could be more legal wrangling, but the NFL has said that, as of now, all the players are eligible to play immediately.

That’s a huge boost for the Browns. When it looked like Fujita wasn’t going to be able to play, their linebacker corps was in disarray, aside from D'Qwell Jackson. Rookie James-Michael Johnson has an oblique injury that could force him to miss several games. It appeared as if the Browns would have to use inexperienced linebackers Kaluka Maiava, L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson against the Eagles. Some or all of those guys still could play, but Fujita suddenly has brought some stability back to the linebacker situation.

Fujita never has been the world’s most gifted linebacker. He gets by on intellect and effort. Now that he’s 33, Fujita’s not a real threat to run Vick down. But you can count on him to do the things he’s supposed to do and not make huge mistakes.

You also can count on him to help make sure the younger linebackers are lined up correctly and know what they’re doing.

With Fujita back in the mix, Cleveland’s defense suddenly looks a lot better than it did a few hours ago.
Jonathan VilmaDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma will have a great impact on the Saints even if he doesn't start immediately.
Ever since the NFL announced player suspensions for what it called a three-year bounty program by New Orleans, I’ve said the on-field implications for the Saints weren’t that significant.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was handed a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith received an four-game suspension. Vilma has been the leader of the defense since his arrival in 2008, but knee problems and age seemed to slow him last season. The Saints signed Curtis Lofton in free agency, and I view him as an upgrade over Vilma, who's on the back half of his career. Smith is New Orleans’ top pass-rusher, but the Saints could have gotten through those four games without too much trouble. They survived last season when Smith was suspended for the first two games.

But, after hearing Friday’s news that an appeals panel has overturned the suspensions, I've changed my mind. I think having Vilma and Smith back is a huge victory for the Saints and will be significant on the field.

Let’s start with Smith. The Saints probably could have gotten by with Turk McBride, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson sharing Smith’s spot. But this team is much better with its best pass-rusher, especially when you consider the Saints open against the Washington Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III on Sunday. Smith didn’t practice this week, but he went through training camp and is in good shape. I think it’s safe to say Smith will be even more motivated than usual this weekend.

Now, let’s move over to Vilma. Part of the reason the Saints have had one of the best franchises in the NFL the past four seasons is they have outstanding leadership. Everyone knows about quarterback Drew Brees' leadership skills. But I don’t think people who haven’t been around the Saints can really understand what Vilma means to this team. He essentially is to the defense what Brees is to the offense. Vilma is the heart and soul of the unit and is respected every bit as much as Brees is in the locker room.

Vilma was rehabbing his knee before his suspension began and wasn’t able to take part in the offseason program. I don’t know what Vilma’s current health status is. He may not be ready for Sunday’s season opener and there’s been speculation he might begin the season on the physically unable to perform list.

His health isn’t the important thing here. Just having Vilma in the locker room is even more important than having him on the field.

He’s smart, he’s good with young players and he’s a fiery competitor. I have little doubt that all that Vilma has been through recently will make him even more fiery. The Saints already approached this season with a chip on their shoulder and view themselves in a situation where the world is against them. Vilma only is going to add to that.

Vilma has been trying to clear his name and the lifting of the suspension certainly helps. But a lot of people still will look at him and think “bounty." There still is a chance that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could re-issue some sort of punishment, but the panel said that can only happen if there is evidence of more than a pay-for-performance program. That means there still is the possibility of more mudslinging.

But, as long as he’s reinstated, Vilma now holds the upper hand when it comes to clearing his name. The best and purest way to do that is to go out and provide the kind of leadership he always has for his teammates. The Super Bowl is in New Orleans this season. If the Saints can become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their hometown, Vilma, Smith and the Saints can come out of what was an absolute mess looking very good.

With coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis still serving suspensions, the Saints need all the leadership they can get. They should get plenty from Vilma, Brees and, to a lesser extent, Smith. But maybe Vilma’s even more of a leader than any of us previously realized. He fought his suspension so hard and, at least for the moment, has won. What’s happened with Vilma just might lead Payton, Vitt and Loomis to resort to legal action to get their suspensions overturned.

If that happens, Vilma will be New Orleans’ Most Valuable Player, even if his knee doesn’t allow him to play a down this season.

Fujita nearby, ready to help Browns

September, 7, 2012
Scott Fujita wasn’t far from the Browns.

“Weirdest thing about training at Baldwin Wallace this week is hearing the whistles/horns at my team's practice, literally a qtr-mile away,” he tweeted at lunch time on Friday.

He doesn’t need to train at Baldwin Wallace College any longer, as a three-member appeal panel has overturned the NFL’s suspension of four players commissioner Roger Goodell implicated in a bounty program with the New Orleans Saints.

The Browns have fourth-round rookie James-Michael Johnson at strongside linebacker, where Fujita started 10 games last year before a season-ending hand injury. Kaluka Maiava is at weakside linebacker.

Browns coach Pat Shurmer declined to talk about possible return for Fujita earlier in the week, according to Tom Reed of the Plain Dealer. But the coach ultimately said he thought he would use the linebacker if he returned.

"I think we're talking hypothetical stuff," Shurmer said. "I'll cross that bridge when we get to it. We've got up until right before game time to put the roster together, but I don't see any reason why he can't play."
Today's ruling in the New Orleans Saints' bounty case has generated one immediate question from an NFC North perspective. Many of you are asking if the Green Bay Packers can re-sign defensive end Anthony Hargrove, released exactly two weeks ago, and play him in Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

This story remains fluid, but the NFL just announced that Hagrove -- along with three other once-suspended players -- has been reinstated and is eligible to play this weekend. So the Packers could bring him back if they chose to. He is officially a free agent. For what it's worth, however, I would be surprised if they choose that route.

Hargrove was released on the first of the NFL's two cutdown dates, a pretty significant sign that things weren't working out independent of Hargrove's looming suspension. The Packers had given him almost no work in team drills during training camp, and other players had stepped into the roles the Packers once eyed Hargrove for.

Stranger things have happened, but I don't see Friday's ruling changing that dynamic for the Packers, at least not right away.

Podcast: Schefter on lifted suspensions

September, 7, 2012
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.
Jonathan Vilma and other current/former suspended New Orleans Saints players won reversals Friday.

What it means for the NFC West:
  • The decision clears Vilma to play against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12. Vilma had previously been suspended for the full season. The other suspended players either would have returned before facing the 49ers (Will Smith) or no longer play for New Orleans (Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove). Vilma is an important part of the Saints' defense. Having him should help against the 49ers' running game.
  • Vilma's availability to the Saints could enable the team to part with Barrett Ruud, the linebacker acquired from Seattle by trade last month. The Seahawks are in line to receive a late-round draft choice from the Saints in return if Ruud remains on New Orleans' roster for an undisclosed number of games. Seattle appears less likely to collect on that trade now that Vilma is available.
  • The reversals affected players, not coaches. The St. Louis Rams will remain without Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely after becoming defensive coordinator for St. Louis.
Full story here.

Saints' player suspensions lifted

September, 7, 2012
The New Orleans Saints have scored their first victory in a long, long time.

After going through 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 injury and that evidence has to show that there was more than a performance pool.

Current New Orleans 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 those suspensions are now vacated.

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

Vilma 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 hasn't said anything yet, but 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.