Vilma, three others suspended for roles in bounty program

Posted May 02, 2012 @ 12:42 p.m.
Posted By PFW staff

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Saints LB Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season for his role in the Saints’ bounty program.

The league also suspended Scott Fujita, who is now with the Browns, for the first three games of 2012, Anthony Hargrove (now with the Packers) for the first eight games and Will Smith for the first four games. All suspensions are without pay.

Each player disciplined can appeal the decision within three days. Goodell would hold a hearing for that appeal.

“It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced,” Goodell said. “Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”

In the release from the NFL, it stated that Vilma, who was a captain of the defense, assisted defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in “establishing and funding the program.” Vilma offered a bounty of $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Cardinals QB Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game, and pledged the same amount if someone knocked out Vikings QB Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC championship game. The Saints won both games and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Vilma is eligible to be reinstated following the Super Bowl in 2013. In his eight seasons, Vilma has 843 tackles, 9½ sacks, 11 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. He started all 58 games in which he played in four seasons with the Saints after playing his first four NFL seasons with the Jets. He reportedly restructured his contract this offseason by lowering his base salary from $5.6 million to $1.6 million while receiving a $1 million signing bonus.

Knowing harsh punishments likely were coming for Vilma, the Saints signed ILBs David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton in free agency.

Hargrove submitted a “signed declaration” to the league that he knew of the program and participated in it. He told, “at least one player on another team that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was a target of a large bounty” in the NFC title game. Hargrove “actively obstructed” the league’s investigation in 2010 by being untruthful to investigators. Hargrove is entering his eighth NFL season and first with Green Bay. He played in 15 games last season for the Seahawks.

Fujita, who is a member of the NFLPA executive committee, pledged a “significant amount of money” to the bounty program in the 2009 playoffs. Fujita has been with the Browns since 2010 and started all 10 games in which he played last year. Fujita serves as the Browns' player representative for the NFLPA.

Smith, who was a captain of the defense, helped Williams in “establishing and funding” the bounty pool. He also pledged “significant sums” for cart-offs and knockouts of opposing players.

“In assessing player discipline,” Goodell said, “I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.”

Goodell wanted to focus on “those individuals who had a higher degree of responsibility and whose conduct warranted special attention” in his suspensions.

The league states that the NFLPA received the March 2 and March 21 reports on the Saints, and that the NFLPA, “publicly stated that it conducted its own investigation into this matter, but it has shared no information from that investigation with the NFL.”

The NFLPA released the following statement:

"After seeing the NFL's decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."

No player that was disciplined agreed to an offer to be interviewed by the league with counsel present. Hargrove submitted a written statement in which he “did not dispute the existence of the program.”

Goodell has advised the NFLPA of the names of all other players found in the investigation.

The bounty program, which was first uncovered in March, took place during the 2009-11 seasons. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season, assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Vitt (who will be the team’s interim head coach) for the first six games, GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games and Williams was suspended indefinitely. Williams is now with the Rams.

The Saints were fined $500,000 and forfeited second-round picks in 2012 and ’13.

The PFW Spin

The suspensions won’t be finalized until appeals are heard, but Goodell did not reduce any of the punishments he doled in the first wave of “bounty” sanctions and probably isn’t inclined to be swayed to approach the players any differently.

After months of waiting, the Saints can be pretty certain that they will be without Vilma — the quarterback of their defense for the past four seasons — in 2012.

The Saints protected themselves in case of a lengthy Vilma suspension with the addition of Curtis Lofton in free agency. Lofton, the Falcons’ starting middle linebacker for the past four seasons, will slide into the middle and provide leadership. That transition could be fairly seamless — Lofton certainly will be an upgrade vs. the run — with Vilma having lost a step to age and injury in recent seasons. The Saints also signed OLBs David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain this offseason, and with OLBs Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring, Scott Shanle, Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey returning from last year’s team, the Saints boast solid depth at the position. Shanle (strong side) and Hawthorne (weak side) are likely to head into training camp as the starters flanking Lofton.

Replacing Smith — arguably the club’s most valuable defensive player — for a quarter of the regular season will be a more difficult task for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Cameron Jordan started opposite Smith at left end as a rookie last season but produced only one sack. The team was expecting the 2011 first-round pick to make strides before the Smith suspension and they can’t afford for him to get off to another slow start with Smith sidelined. Junior Gallette and Turk McBride are the candidates on the roster to fill the other starting spot at defensive end. 

New Orleans did not spend any of its five draft picks on linebackers or defensive ends last week and has not had any free-agent linebackers or defensive ends in for visits recently, but it would not be a surprise if GM Mickey Loomis looks to at least add depth, if not a starting-caliber player, at defensive end before his eight-game suspension begins at the end of the preseason.