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All Things Considered, Saints Player Bounty Penalties Could Have Been Worse

Neither Jonathan Vilma or Gregg Williams will be active participants of the 2012 NFL season.Neither Jonathan Vilma or Gregg Williams will be active participants of the 2012 NFL season.

NEW ORLEANS -- To be honest, today's ruling by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could have been a hell of a lot worse for the Bounty scandal-riddled New Orleans Saints.

Based on the league's three-year long investigation that concluded as many as 27 players participated in Bounty Gate, the fact that only two on the current roster were suspended should give the Saints organization and Who Dat Nation a collective sigh of relief.

I anticipated more suspensions and fines in light of the league's broad-brush indictment and previous harsh sanctions levied against top members of the Saints football operations.

As expected, Goodell clamped down on two alleged ringleaders, defensive captain/middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma who received a season-long suspension (effective immediately) and defensive captain/right defensive end Will Smith who is suspended for the first four games of the regular season.

The sanctions also targeted two former Saints -- defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) who received eight- and three-game suspensions, respectively.

If my math is right, that means 23 Saints defensive players escaped Goodell's wrath. That doesn't mean those unsanctioned players are innocent of any wrongdoing necessarily or that they didn't participate in the "pay for pain'' scheme, it just means they go free.

And while Wednesday's announcement does end the suspense as it relates to player sanctions, it certainly has not brought closure to this ongoing saga.

Each of the four players is expected to file an appeal with Goodell within the next three days. I suspect the commissioner will not have a sympathetic ear. I also believe it will become even more contentious between Goodell and the NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith before all is said and done.

To borrow that infamous oxymoron from Yogi Berra, "it ain't over till it's over.''

So how will the sanctions affect the ultimate success of the Saints this season?

To be perfectly honest, I think minimal damage has been done and here's why:

Saints officials prepared themselves for Vilma's absence with the signings of free agent linebackers Curtis Lofton, Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne. But they also addressed a glaring need to upgrade that area of the defense.

Vilma had already given back several million dollars to the team with the recent restructuring of his contract and now he stands to lose his entire $1.6 million 2012 base salary barring the outcome of his appeal. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, he vehemently denied the allegations against him and vowed to challenge the sanctions.

Vilma, who reportedly helped "establish, fund and assist'' former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in implementing the bounty scandal, is a perceived leader on and off the field.

But Vilma's best days are behind him. He has bad knees and is a "descending athlete'' as the late Jim Finks would say. If the season-long suspension is upheld, Vilma's playing career in New Orleans indeed might be finished.

With regards to Smith, this incident is the latest blemish on a career filled with missteps.

-- For nearly three years, he had to play under the cloud of StarCaps before finally serving a reduced two-game suspension to open the 2011season and being fined two additional game checks.

-- In March, the Lafayette Parish DA's Office opted to dismiss a year-old charge of misdemeanor domestic abuse battery after he completed community service and participated in counseling. His wife also requested that the charges be dismissed.

-- And now he has been suspended four games by the NFL for helping "establish, fund and assisting'' Williams in implementing the Bounty scandal. Smith, too, proclaims his innocense and vows to fight the suspension.

Smith also restructured his contract during the offseason. In 2012, he is scheduled to earn a reduced base salary of $825,000 (minus four game checks totalling approximately $200,000).

In early March, Smith did receive a $1 million roster bonus and a $6.175 million signing bonus, so he's not hurting for money. Whether he sees the remaining two years of his contract that call for annual base salaries of $9 million and $10.4 million remains to be seen.

Smith is a good player, not a great player; a good pass rusher, not a great pass rusher. His absence can be overcome by first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and acting head coach Joe Vitt. Other defensive ends on the roster can pick up the slack in his absence, most notably Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, Turk McBride and redshirt rookie Greg Romeus with veteran free agent Jeff Charleston now probably coming on board.

Why not investigate acquiring disgruntled defensive end Osi Umenyiora who might be wrestled away from the New York Giants for the right price?

In closing, I contend that if Saints coaches and players had followed the league's directive back in the offseason of 2010 and ceased their systematic "pay-for-pain'' scheme, the Bounty scandal would never have come to this.

That said, I ask Saints owner Tom Benson and his exiled head coach, Sean Payton: Was hiring Gregg Williams to change the defensive culture in January 2009 worth all this?

It helped produce a Super Bowl championship but it came at a very steep price.

A costly one.

 

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