NEW ORLEANS - Finding fault with nearly everyone tied to the New Orleans Saints' bounty case, from the coaches to Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue tossed out the suspensions of four players Tuesday and condemned the team for obstructing the investigation.
In a surprising rejection of his successor's overreaching punishments, Tagliabue wrote that he would "now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon" two current Saints, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, and two players no longer with the club, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Tagliabue essentially absolved Fujita, but did agree with Goodell's finding that the other three players "engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football."
It was a ruling that allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first made "Saints bounties" a household phrase: The NFL pointed to the determination that Goodell's facts were right; the NFL Players Association issued a statement noting that Tagliabue said "previously issued discipline was inappropriate."
Vilma, suspended by Goodell for the entire current season, and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while their appeals were pending. Fujita is on injured reserve; Hargrove is not with a team.
Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to oversee a second round of player appeals, criticized the Saints as an organization that fostered bad behavior and tried to impede the investigation into what the NFL said was a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars in payouts.
A "culture" that promoted tough talk and cash incentives for hits to injure opponents - one key example was Vilma's offer of $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game at the end of the 2009 season - existed in New Orleans, according to Tagliabue, who also wrote that "Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation."
The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.
He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays - including hard tackles - while Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," the ruling said. "However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
Tagliabue said he decided, in this particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties involved to eliminate player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing player safety.
"To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines," his ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw the second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Goodell had given Vilma a full-season suspension, while he gave Smith, Fujita and Hargrove shorter suspensions.
Tagliabue cleared Fujita of conduct detrimental to the league.
The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment to players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether the pledges players made were genuine, or simply a motivational ploy, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated a pattern of dirty play on the field.
"The relationship of the discipline for the off-field 'talk' and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness," Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion. "If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or 'bounties' from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees commented on Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."