Commentary

Resolution needed in Saints scandal

Mailbag: Criticism of the replacement refs continues; Philly's quirky schedule

Originally Published: September 19, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The back and forth earlier this week between the NFL and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was interesting.

Finally, an affidavit from former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was leaked that confirmed a pay-for-performance pool involving the Saints. It also alluded to a $10,000 incentive being floated by Vilma to take out Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, answered by saying he could produce 30 affidavits to counter Williams' testimony.

[+] EnlargeJonathan VIlma
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoMore than six months in, and the situation surrounding the Saints scandal is still unsettled.

My question is: Why has it taken six months to get to the stage in which both sides can argue their cases? The NFL spent three years investigating bounty allegations. It compiled mountains of testimony. Yet, because of the legal maneuverings on both sides, the case is literally still in the hearing stage.

Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed suspensions in early March. From players to coaches to front-office executives, this ranked among the strongest punishments in the history of the league and understandably so. A bounty system that could lead to injury has no place in any league.

But it has taken six months to get to the heart of the issue: Does the Saints case involve pay for performance or pay for injury? The issue comes down to words, and that's where there needs to be a fair hearing. If Vilma stands up in front of a room and offers $10,000 to the player who takes out Farve, is he saying it with the idea of a legal hit or an illegal cheap shot?

Ginsberg worked his legal strategy by not having his clients cooperate. In a way, that stalling tactic has worked to a degree. The Friday before the start of the season, Vilma and the three other accused players had a three-judge panel temporarily lift the suspensions.

What hasn't happened is Ginsberg being able to depose Williams and others, which would be fair considering the severity of the penalties. We don't know if that will happen.

From both sides, a better structure needs to come from this. If a player is going to be suspended for a season, there needs to be a process in which his attorney can challenge testimony against the client. On the flip side, the accused can't be allowed to abstain from a legitimate hearing in which the commissioner and his attorneys can question him. It's the accused's right not to answer, but more structure is needed.

We're six months into this process. That's a long time. It seems likely Goodell is simply going to render another round of suspensions, and still more time will be needed to see if the suspensions can hold up.

From the inbox

Q: If a person is looking for a flaw, he or she will always find one. Seems to me the collective NFL reporting intelligencia is working too hard to find errors made by the replacement refs. For example, on the Sunday night broadcast, Cris Collinsworth seemed to comment on the officiating after EVERY play. Was that really necessary? We get it: The replacement refs are not as experienced as the regular refs and are missing a few calls. So? The regular refs missed a few calls too. How about just focusing on the play and accepting a few officiating bumps in the road? Just like anyone new at a job, over time the replacement refs will get better. I may not be a self-proclaimed expert on NFL officiating like some, but I'm enjoying the games just as much with the replacement refs as I did with the regular refs.

Casey in San Francisco

A: At the moment, the NFL is with you on the subject. But if a commentator is asked to react to each play, it's hard not to point out the flaws of the replacement officials. Weeks ago, I admitted they were easy targets. They haven't been schooled on the rules, and they aren't going to be able to pick up all the rules in one offseason. Some of the games are hard to watch because of the confusion and the mistakes. How embarrassing is it to see a referee fumble around a decision for a few minutes and then have to go to the sideline to ask an NFL adviser what to do? The NFL needs to have the best of the best and the NFL doesn't have the best now with the current group of officials. Your being irritated by the in-game commentary is fair. But that's the problem of going with replacements. It's disrupting the game.

Q: Should the Redskins consider bringing back Andre Carter because of the recent news that Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker are out for the season? Carter had a great year for the Patriots last year and would likely come cheap at this point.

Matt in Washington

A: Interesting thought. I'd feel better if the Redskins were in a 4-3 defense. Carter does better as a defensive end in a 4-3 than he does as a linebacker in a 3-4. The Redskins are a 3-4 defense, and I'm sure that's why Carter was in Oakland on Tuesday when the Redskins were promoting a linebacker from the practice squad. A Carter-for-Orakpo swap may not work in the starting lineup, but I can see it working in sub packages. With teams using more three- and four-receiver sets, a 3-4 defense may only be in Washington's base structure 30 percent of the games or less. Carter could help in the sub package as a defensive end who can rush the passer. If you are making that suggestion, it's a good one.

Q: When the Colts made the move for Vontae Davis, the rest of the league had to have some idea that Davis was available on some level. So why didn't the Detroit Lions, who are in more need for a quality defensive back than the rest of the NFL, make the move for Davis? And will they attempt to make a trade for anyone despite the fact that they don't seem to have a win-now attitude regarding this season? I understand they want to build mainly through the draft and as little as possible through free agency and trades except in the cases where they need to beef up their special teams, but something has to give.

Tom in Atlanta

A: In this case, the price was probably too high. The Lions have more than a half dozen starters on defense who are free agents next year, and they won't be able to keep them all. That's why they would have been reluctant to give up a second-round choice and a conditional sixth, the price paid by the Colts. That second-round choice will probably end up being a cornerback next year. But the Lions are thin at corner, which is one of the reasons why I wonder if they will make it to the playoffs. At the end of the season, how the Lions handled the cornerback position could end up being the difference between being a playoff team and being a runner-up.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Steven SenneSchedule quirks could give Michael Vick and the Eagles fits this season.

Q: Of their 16 games, the Eagles play four teams coming off of a bye week: the Steelers in Week 5, the Lions in Week 6, the Falcons in Week 8 and the Redskins in Week 11. In their other 12 games, they play two teams who will have extra rest from coming off of a Thursday night game: the Giants in Week 4 and the Cowboys in Week 13). The Eagles also play two Monday night games -- Week 9 and Week 12 -- so they will have short weeks going into Week 10 and 13. This means the Eagles will have the same rest as their opponent for only eight games or just half of the season. Worse, every in-division team will have extra rest against the Eagles this season. How is this scheduling fair? Why did the NFL allow this to happen? I understand that scheduling cannot be perfectly fair, but this strikes me as absurd. Why is no one in the media talking about this?

Erik in Los Angeles

A: It isn't fair, but good teams understand that's the price of success. Bad teams get simple schedules. Most of their games are played at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Good teams are in demand. They are asked to play Thursday and Monday nights. The Eagles set themselves up to be a Dream Team. They just have to deal with the challenge. It comes with the price of success.

Q: I was watching the Jets-Steelers game the other night and something occurred to me: Why are teams still blitzing Ben Roethlisberger? It seems like half the time, even if they can get people to him, he breaks a dozen tackles and still finds a way to make a play of some sort. I would think it'd be smarter to ease off the blitzing and keep people in coverage instead.

John in St. Petersburg, Fla.

A: The problem was the coverage. Darrelle Revis was out with a concussion. The Jets don't have enough good pass-rushers to be able to get to Roethlisberger in conventional sets. Rex Ryan was in a tough position. Do you let Roethlisberger burn you without a pass rush or do you manufacture something to give him a challenge? Minus Revis, the Jets were in a tough spot to win in Pittsburgh.

Q: I particularly appreciated your article on overreaction. I have to admit that I just don't get it. I understand fans overreacting. For them, emotion gets in the way as well as the fact that it's all just a hobby for them in the end. What I don't understand is why so many sports writers and commentators overreact. This is their job. They're paid to do this. They are supposed to be good at this.

Jack in Denton, Texas

A: Football isn't like baseball, basketball or hockey where there are long seasons to balance things. The NFL has a 16-game schedule. That small model of judgment creates the environment for overreaction. What has helped me is studying the schedule. Some teams go into the season with bad rosters. They are either rebuilding or simply not good. What you try to do is pinpoint those teams and not overreact to teams that beat those bad teams. You also have to judge the teams that are loaded with talent. That's why many of us tempered our projections for teams such as Denver, Kansas City and Tennessee because they had opening schedules against a lot of good teams. If they struggle early, there are explanations.

Q: After watching the NFL over the past decade, I have determined that there is a huge dropoff between the best tier of running backs and everyone else. For most teams, a good offensive line can make average backs look great, but only a select few elite backs can run without a great line. It's sort of the difference between game-manager QBs and elite QBs. The managers can be replaced by someone who plays well with a solid scheme and talent surrounding him, while the elite QBs can perform despite the weakness of a deficient area on their team. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Adam in Washington

A: You are 100 percent correct. The Adrian Petersons, Steven Jacksons, Maurice Jones-Drews, Ray Rices and others stand out. Good teams have found they can get by with average backs. Look at Green Bay, New England and others. It's almost more important to invest in the offensive line instead of going overboard for a running back. If you look at the top rushers after the first two weeks, many are the smaller, quicker backs who aren't going to be asked to make 20 carries a game. Many weren't first-round picks. If a great college running back falls into a draft slot for a team, the team should take him. But you don't have a have a great back to be a champion in this league. You need a top quarterback.

Q: Let's say a team is down by 15, and scores a TD with five or six minutes left (for example, as the Pack did against the 49ers). Why do coaches always seem to go for the extra point in that situation instead of the two-point conversion? Wouldn't it be better to know right then whether you convert the two? If you miss it, at least you know then you have to play for two more scores.

Brad in San Francisco

A: Most coaches go by a predetermined strategy in those situations. I think they are doing it the smart way by going for the extra point first and then trying to get the two-point conversion after the second touchdown. For years, I thought coaches blew it with the two-point conversations by trying them too early in games. Two-point conversions are difficult to convert. Failure, as you mention, means you are forced to make two scoring drives to win. I consider a blown two-point conversion as a lost point. Save the tough one for the end.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer