Updated Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Paul Tagliabue, in a rebuke of his successor as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, vacated the suspensions of four players involved in a bounty scandal that has vexed the New Orleans Saints for more than nine months.
Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to handle a second round of player appeals after Goodell was forced to modify his original discipline, walked a tightrope in his ruling Tuesday.
He affirmed Goodell's finding a bounty program offering money for hits that knocked opponents from games did exist.
Tagliabue also said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and defensive end Will Smith engaged in conduct detrimental to the league and that Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre before the Saints played the Vikings in the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
But Tagliabue — who conducted a hearing that included interviews of players, coaches and other league personnel — shifted the blame for the bounty program almost entirely to the Saints, citing "broad organizational misconduct."
Tagliabue agreed with Goodell that senior Saints coaches "conceived, encouraged and directed" the bounty program and that coaches and managers "led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation."
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games and interim head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. Those punishments have stood.
Tagliabue said while fines might have been appropriate discipline for the players, the NFL had not previously fined or suspended players for the kind of activities the Saints players were found to have participated in. He found coaches and other members of the Saints' organization had "contaminated" the case, essentially saying Goodell's original suspensions, including a full season for Vilma, were too harsh.
Tagliabue exonerated former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who is with the Cleveland Browns, finding he had not engaged in conduct detrimental to the league because he did not participate in a program promoting "cart-off" and "knockout" hits. Fujita's participation in a noninjury-pay-for-performance pool, Tagliabue said, was an action usually dealt with by a player's team, not by the league.
Tagliabue noted vacating the suspensions should not be viewed as a condoning of the players' behavior. He also said his ruling should not be viewed as setting a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future would merit suspensions or fines.
"I do not approve any of the misconduct in which Commissioner Goodell found the players to have engaged, though I do not find Fujita's conduct equivalent to the other players," Tagliabue wrote. "But each player made choices that do not reflect favorably on him. Moreover, there is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light."
Smith, who was suspended four games, and Vilma played for the Saints while their appeals were pending. Hargrove is a free agent.
DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys paid tribute to practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown at a private memorial attended by defensive tackle Josh Brent, the man charged with intoxication manslaughter in the one-car accident that killed his 25-year-old teammate Saturday.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brent's presence was at the request of Brown's mother, Stacey Jackson, who was flown to Dallas from her home in St. Louis on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' private plane. Brent met the family at the airport and rode with them to the memorial.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said the team would "support Josh 100 percent in every way that we can," while the NFL has "no issue" with Brent being at team facilities, league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Jets get Edwards
NEW YORK — Braylon Edwards is back with the New York Jets — a week after bashing them.
Edwards, 29, was awarded to New York off waivers from the Seahawks as the Jets try to bolster their injured receiving corps with a familiar face. Edwards developed a good rapport with quarterback Mark Sanchez in helping the Jets to consecutive trips to the AFC title game in 2009 and 2010.
Edwards reiterated his feelings for the much-criticized Sanchez last week when he took to Twitter and criticized the Jets' organization, describing the front office as "idiots."
• The Pittsburgh Steelers suspended running back Rashard Mendenhall, 25, for their game Sunday against Dallas for conduct detrimental to the team.
Pittsburgh promoted running back Baron Batch from the practice squad to take Mendenhall's place.
Mendenhall was demoted to third string after a fumble in a loss to Cleveland last month. According to reports, Mendenhall wasn't at Heinz Field on Sunday after being told he would not dress for the game — a 34-24 loss to San Diego.
Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent after this season.
• Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life earlier this month, was laid out in an open silver casket surrounded by flowers and displays of family snapshots at a church in Dix Hills, N.Y., where hundreds of mourners gathered at a wake to remember him. The wake was held a few miles from the West Babylon, N.Y., home where the 25-year-old Belcher was raised.
CLIFF OWEN / AP
Ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, pictured Nov. 30 in Washington, D.C., tossed out the suspensions of four players in the New Orleans Saints' bounty case Tuesday.