By Josh Preston
The New Orleans Saints are preparing for the third of their five preseason games against the Jacksonville Jaguars in what will be their first home game of the 2012-2013 season. But the biggest news this preseason may actually come in a decision made off the field by Judge Ginger Berrigan, who heard starting linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s case in court this past Friday.
Back in May, the Saints were leveled with unprecedented punishments for Bountygate, which resulted in year-long suspensions for both Head Coach Sean Payton and Vilma. Vilma is seeking to have his suspension overturned in court and has also filed a defamation case against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The penalties levied by the NFL were a shock to many, but what may be even bigger news is that Judge Berrigan is clearly leaning in favor of Vilma, “I would like to rule in Mr. Vilma’s favor,” said Judge Berrigan, “because I don’t think the process was transparent or fair.” She also questioned Goodell’s decision regarding the suspensions, “The issue here is whether the commissioner complied with the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement in imposing the sanctions…I have a serious question as to whether he did.”
On top of that, NFL Insiders Ed Werder, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported on August 6 that the NFL offered to settle the case with Vilma by reducing his suspension to eight games with the provision that he drop his defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which appears to be a sign that the NFL is concerned with the ramifications of having to defend itself in court. They have denied the report but what are the odds that lynchpins in the business such as Werder, Schefter and Mortensen completely whiffed on this?
Bountygate has been a baffling compilation of admissions, denials, silence and secrets. Executives and coaches have accepted their punishments for their involvement, particularly Greg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and apologized for his role in the program on two separate occasions. On May 2, he issued a statement that read in part, “I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the ‘pay for performance’ program while I was with the Saints. It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it.”
Yet, the players, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita, no longer with the Saints, along with Will Smith and Vilma, who have been suspended for 8, 3 and 4 games respectively for their parts in the bounty program, have come out in what may mildly be put as adamant and vehement repudiations – especially in the case of Hargrove, Fujita and Vilma.
Had the aforementioned statement from Williams been the last of his comments, the players’ denials would have appeared far more viable. But on May 23, Williams issued another statement through the St. Louis Rams, where he was set to begin the season as the defensive coordinator, “I’d like to again apologize wholeheartedly to the NFL, Coach Fisher, the entire Rams organization and all football fans for my actions,” said Williams. “Furthermore, I apologize to the players of the NFL for my involvement as it is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach, nor is it reflective of the great respect I have for this game and its core principle of sportsmanship.”
Why would he be apologizing so deeply to players for a “pay-for-performance” scheme? By many accounts, these are common throughout NFL locker rooms and it is not why the Saints were given such harsh penalties. The NFL has made it clear that they believe the Saints had a “pay-to-injure” scheme, which is what Williams seemed to be making reference to.
How is it possible that two levels of an organization can be on polar opposites of a black-and-white ‘did you have a bounty system’ or not case? The admission from Williams seemed to be all that one needed to point to to validate the findings of the NFL, even with the players’ objections – that is – until the NFL reportedly tried to “settle” a matter that they have been dismissive of since day one, essentially stating that Vilma’s suit usurps the collective bargaining agreement struck before last season.
That point is in some ways being echoed by Judge Berrigan, who says she is not sure she has the power to overrule the NFL’s decision and is not expected to rule on Vilma’s case before the final appeals hearing with the NFL on August 30.
As for Goodell and the NFL, how can they hand down such severe punishments without being absolutely and unequivocally sure that the penalties are justified? Especially in the case of Vilma, a 30 year-old linebacker in what are likely his final few years in the league, and then suspending a head coach for an entire year.
These are not the types of decisions that the NFL should be willing to “settle” on. This is “player safety,” which is of paramount concern to the NFL according to them. If the Saints had a pay-to-injure scheme, and Vilma was founded to spear-head the program as a major contributor to the pot, then a year is justified. These players depend on their health to support themselves and their families, and players and coaches that are intentionally trying to injure (not hurt, which everyone is trying to do) an opponent, whether they succeed or not (you can’t get a pass for being bad at playing dirty), should be punished severely.
Saints owner Tom Benson, according to Schefter, flew to New York Tuesday morning to meet with the commissioner, presumably about the actions of Goodell regarding the punishments.
If Judge Berrigan is able to rule in Vilma’s favor and get his suspension reduced or thrown out all-together, not only will Goodell and the NFL take a major hit in terms of the credibility of its investigation, but it will also call into question the integrity and decision making of the notoriously heavy-handed commissioner and may open the door for others to appeal their suspensions in court as well.
If the Saints can get Vilma back on the field alongside the newly-acquired Curtis Lofton, who has looked terrific in the first couple of preseason games, the defense may see a dramatic improvement this season. True, Vilma may have lost a step last year and was not quite as good as in years past, but his leadership on the field as the man in the middle matching wits with the top quarterbacks in the league should not be underestimated.
Although it remains to be seen how the loss of a head coach for an entire season may effect a team, the reversal of Vilma’s suspension, which now seems to be at the very least a viable option, coupled with Drew Brees leading the offense could place the Saints firmly at the top of the division as the favorites of the NFC South.