METAIRIE — The overturning of the players’ suspensions in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal on Tuesday did little to slow down the talk about the most talked-about subject in the NFL for the past 91/2 months.
On Wednesday, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith met with reporters for the first time since the suspensions for their role in an alleged pay-for-performance scheme involving Saints’ defenders were vacated by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Before they did, quarterback Drew Brees sharply criticized Commissioner Roger Goodell for his handling of the investigation and suspensions handed to Vilma and Smith and two former teammates — linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Brees, the face of the franchise, said during his weekly news conference that Goodell has “very little to no credibility” with players and fans because of the way the situation was handled.
Vilma was suspended by Goodell for the season, while Smith was banned for four games. Hargrove, currently a free agent, received an eight-game ban and Fujita, who is with the Cleveland Browns, was suspended for three.
Goodell also suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six games.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was hired by the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely.
The players’ suspensions were overturned Tuesday by Tagliabue, a lawyer who was appointed appeals hearing officer by Goodell, after listening to testimony last week in Washington D.C. and New Orleans.
“The unfortunate thing is I feel like the NFL through this whole process, including Commissioner Goodell, has been all about an outcome as opposed to a fair process,” Brees said. “That’s all we wanted this entire time. That’s what we fought for. And finally, we got that.”
Brees said Goodell took the word of two disgruntled former employees — Williams and defensive assistant Mike Cerullo — in making his decisions.
“I know throughout this whole case, our coaches, our players, were lied to on many occasions by the league office, the investigators, as to where they were getting their information and everything else,” Brees said.
“They made it seem like they had this rock-solid case made up of other coaches and players when in reality, they had the testimony of Gregg Williams and Mike Cerullo.”
Brees said the case turned when Tagliabue was appointed in October to hear the appeals, saying it seemed staged and that the league wanted to get itself out of the mess by letting the players off.
Despite lifting the suspensions, Tagliabue agreed with the league’s findings that Vilma, Smith and Hargrove were involved in a pool that provided cash rewards for big plays and hard hits called “cart-offs” and “knockouts.”
Fujita was exonerated by Tagliabue of conduct detrimental to the league, saying he found the NFL’s contentions against Fujita to be “lacking in merit.”
Brees said Tagliabue’s decision was serious vindication for the players involved because they’ve had to go through a lot.
“What I’d like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and Commissioner Goodell in regards to mishandling this entire situation,” he said. “We as players hold ourselves, and are held to, a very strict code of conduct both on an off the field.
“We have to be accountable to that, as it should be, and I feel like they should be held to the same standards. If someone would just come out in the league office and admit that, ‘You know what, we could have handled this situation better,’ it would go such a long way with both players and fans.”
Tagliabue noted the case was contaminated by Saints’ coaches and other members of the organization because they encouraged players to participate in the system, did nothing to stop it or misled investigators.
Brees said it was unfortunate the coaches and Loomis didn’t have the same opportunity to be supported the way the players were by the NFL Players Association throughout the process.
“The coaches are told the way it’s going to be, and they have no way to fight back unfortunately,” he said. “I’d say certainly Mickey Loomis, Joe Vitt and Sean Payton didn’t deserve what they got. That’s the way I feel about that.”
Goodell, who was attending a league meeting in Dallas on Wednesday, said he fundamentally disagreed with, but respected, Tagliabue’s decision to not discipline the players.
“Commissioner Tagliabue said there’s no one here that should feel good about their role in this with respect to the Saints,” Goodell said. “To have a bounty program where you’re targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it’s clear that occurred for three years despite all the denials.”
Vitt would not comment on Tagliabue’s decision, but said he was happy the players were vindicated.
As two of the four players who were identified as ring-leaders in the bounty system, Vilma and Smith were relieved to have it behind them even though they weren’t exonerated by Tagliabue.
“Well, the most important part of it is me being able to play now and not having to worry about a lingering suspension … that part is over,” Vilma said. “I’m excited about that.”
Vilma does plan to continue pursuing a defamation-of-character lawsuit he filed against Goodell in May, about 21/2 months after the NFL announced its initial findings, to clear his name.
“The next part is really ... that’s outside of football,” Vilma said of the suit. “That’s talking about attacking a man’s character, attacking a man’s integrity.”
“I’d tell you to just go check my Twitter account,” he said when asked if he felt he was defamed. “You still have people saying there still was a bounty. ‘You’re still a liar.’ Things like that. It’s unfortunate.”
“For the most part, I’m happy I don’t have to serve a suspension,” Smith said. “I thought it should have been that way from day one. People actually think we went out and did this, and we didn’t do this.
“You know, they said all along I was the guy that started it, which Gregg said I didn’t. They said I was the guy that encouraged other players to be a part of a pay-for-performance scheme. I never did that. All the stuff they’re accusing me of doing, everyone said I didn’t do.”
While Vilma steered clear of talking about Goodell, Smith said he didn’t have anything negative to say about the commissioner.
“Whatever information he received from whoever he received it from, obviously was false,” he said. “He may have overreacted, but he has a tough job. He has to make tough decisions and tough rulings at times.
“He’s a human being. He makes mistakes, so I’m happy that finally we don’t have to sit out the four games. … We can move on with our careers and put this behind us.”