Saints players get last laugh vs. Roger Goodell

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Saints players get last laugh vs. Roger Goodell

From Comcast SportsNetNEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Four players embroiled for nearly 10 months in the NFL's bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints no longer have to worry about suspensions or fines, and can try to move on with their careers on the field.Off the field, the fallout from the dispute could endure for some time, particularly in federal court.In a surprising rejection of his successor's overreaching punishments, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threw out "all discipline" current Commissioner Roger Goodell had imposed on 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, appointed by Goodell to handle player appeals in the matter, essentially absolved Fujita, but agreed 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."The 22-page ruling Tuesday allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first revealed the Saints' bounty scandal to shocked fans, describing a performance pool operated by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that, among other things, rewarded hits that injured opponents.The four players punished by Goodell have maintained they were innocent of taking part in bounty program from the beginning, saying they never intended to injure anyone on the field. Vilma even has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell in U.S. District Court in Louisiana, and his lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams, said they intend to continue to pursue those claims "vigorously.""Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan," Vilma's lawyers said a statement. "Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day."While no other players have yet filed similar lawsuits, Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, said this week that "the NFL dragged (Hargrove's) name through the mud and lied about him," costing him an entire season of his career.Hargrove was cut by Green Bay shortly before the regular season. His agent said a number of other teams inquired about signing him, but only after they were confident that bounty matter had been resolved. That has finally happened, as far as the NFL is concerned, but there are only three weeks left in the regular season.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 who was facing a one-game suspension, is on injured reserve. Hargrove's suspension initially stood at eight games but was reduced to seven with credit for his first five games missed as a free agent, essentially reducing the ban he'd been facing to two games.Tagliabue's ruling did nothing to vindicate Saints coaches or the organization. Rather, the former commissioner 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," Tagliabue said in his ruling. "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 appeals by players, who initially opposed his appointment.The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment of 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 motivational ploys, 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."The Saints opened the season 0-4 and are now 5-8 and virtually out of the playoffs after appearing in the playoffs the three previous seasons, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title to conclude the 2009 season.Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, only to have them overturned."We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the league said in a statement."The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the (NFL's collective bargaining agreement) to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."The players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest appeal to play out before deciding whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday giving the NFLPA and Vilma until Wednesday to notify the court if they found Tagliabue's ruling acceptable.The NFLPA indicated that it was largely satisfied by how the process worked out, so some federal court claims against the NFL could be dropped on Wednesday, even as Vilma's defamation claims remain."We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program," the NFLPA said in a statement. "Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false."NFL investigators had concluded that Vilma and Smith were ringleaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." Witnesses including Gregg Williams said Vilma made a 10,000 pledge for anyone who knocked Favre out of the NFC title game in January 2010. However, Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine or simply a motivational tactic."There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty" on Favre, Tagliabue wrote. "I cannot, however, uphold a multigame suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine."The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have from the beginning denied they ever took the field intending to injure opponents, while Hargrove has said he never lied about a bounty program, because there wasn't one.Goodell suspended Gregg Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFLPA, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being "a dirty organization," jump-started the probe.Smith said he was pleased that Tagliabue vacated his suspension."I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program," he added. "I appreciate that Mr. Tagliabue did not rush to judgment, taking into consideration all facts presented to him, before ruling -- something that was clearly not done by Commissioner Goodell in previous hearings."

Backes: Bruins are back to playing 'winning hockey'

Backes: Bruins are back to playing 'winning hockey'

BOSTON -- It felt very much like a welcome return to the good parts of the Bruce Cassidy Era on Tuesday night.

The Bruins jumped out to a strong, early lead, utilized strong, disciplined defense and good goaltending and closed things out strongly in the third period in a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators at TD Garden. The win really allows last weekend’s big two points against the Islanders to be a turning point, and gives the Black and Gold a three-point cushion for a playoff spot over a Tampa Bay Lightning group that just doesn’t seem to be going away.

The victory also improved the Bruins to 8-3 in 11 games at home under Cassidy, and that’s a big key knowing that they’ll be playing 5-of-6 games at the Garden to close out this season’s playoff push.

“We had a couple of boo-boos there in front of our net where we probably got going a little too quick, but at the end of the day, [it was] more positives than negatives, and that’s kind of how we want to play everywhere, but particularly in this building,” said Cassidy. “Let’s establish the energy level, be on our toes, be ready to play, and again, that was something we weren’t pleased with the last game in here. I addressed that, and that was one of the most satisfying responses from [Tuesday’s] home game.”

So it looks and sounds safe at this point to say the Bruins are out of their mini-tailspin and this won’t be the same kind of epic collapse that doomed the Black and Gold in each of the last couple of seasons. The Bruins blocked 24 shots, they put four goals on the board and they never trailed in a game against a Western Conference playoff team.

Sure, they might still miss the cut when it’s all said and done. But they’ve got a 70.3 percent chance of making the playoffs with just six games remaining in the season, so that’s about as good a position as they could hope for at this point.

“It was certainly a vindication of how we were playing on the Island [New York], and it wasn’t highlight reel or pretty – maybe Pasta [David Pastrnak] had a couple nice moves coming down the wall,” said David Backes. “But we made a lot of hard plays, blocked a lot of hard shots when we needed it, and that’s winning hockey. It showed up tonight in droves from a lot of different guys. It’s no secret that’s how you win games this time of year. It was awesome to see from all the guys.”

Now the Bruins need to simply bottle up the compete level and execution they showed on Tuesday night, and repeat it six more times while looking to snap the two year spell that’s had Boston out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Drellich: Breaking down Hernandez vs. Selsky

Drellich: Breaking down Hernandez vs. Selsky

Who’s on first? A middle infielder, maybe.

Hanley Ramirez, Josh Rutledge and Mitch Moreland aren't fully healthy. So the 25th man on the Red Sox has become a matter of corner-infield triage.

Rutledge was gearing up to play some first base with Ramirez restricted to DH because of his throwing shoulder. But Rutledge is hurt now too, likely headed to the disabled list with a left hamstring strain, Sox manager John Farrell said Wednesday morning in Florida.

Here’s the easiest way to think about who takes Rutledge's place: Who would the Red Sox like to see less against left handed pitching, third baseman Pablo Sandoval or first baseman Mitch Moreland? 

If it’s Sandoval, then you carry Marco Hernandez, who can play third base.

“He’s a very strong candidate,” manager John Farrell told reporters in Florida on Wednesday. “He’s one of a few that are being considered strongly right now.” 

If it’s Moreland, than you carry Steve Selsky, who has a history playing first base.

“He’s a guy we’re having discussions on,” Farrell said. “Any guy in our camp that we feel is going to make us a more complete or balanced roster, Deven Marrero, they’re all in consideration.”

The additional wrench here is that Moreland has the flu. If he's not available at all for a few days to begin the season, then the Sox probably have to carry Hernandez.

Why? Because Brock Holt can play some first base if Moreland is out. But then, you’d need another back-up middle infielder, and Hernandez gives you that. 

Hernandez is also hitting .379 in 58 at-bats this spring entering Wednesday.

Moreland isn’t the only one who has the flu.

"It’s running through our clubhouse," Sox manager John Farrell told reporters in Florida on Wednesday, including the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton. "Probably be held out for three days for a quarantine.” (LINK:http://www.providencejournal.com/sports/20170329/with-josh-rutledge-and-mitch-moreland-ailing-first-base-depth-compromised-for-red-sox)

That means the Red Sox won't have Moreland for their exhibitions against the Nationals on Friday and Saturday in Washington D.C. and Annapolis, Md. Moreland could still be ready for the regular season, but would likely be at less than full strength.

Having Ramirez available would sure make things a lot simpler for the Sox.

Both Sandoval at third base and Moreland could use right-handed bats to complement them. Or more specifically, they could use people who can hit left-handed pitching to complement them.

Hernandez is a left-handed hitter who might actually be able to hit lefties. But the Sox haven't used him at first base, and there's no indication they will.

“As we look at the upcoming games, there is the potential for two left-handed starters in Detroit,” Farrell said. “So there’s a number of things being factored right now.”

Early in spring training, Farrell was asked what player had started to catch his eye.

The guy he mentioned was Selsky, an outfielder and first baseman the Red Sox feel fortunate to have picked up off waivers because he still has minor league options remaining.

Now Selsky, who has already technically been cut from major league spring training, has a chance at making the opening day roster. He's 27 and hit .356 in 45 Grapefruit League at-bats.

Chris Young isn't going to have an easy time finding at-bats as it stands now, but the Sox aren't considering moving him to first base.