Quoting a character from “Family Guy,” Jonathan Vilma took to Twitter and declared: “Victory is mine!!!!”
Quoting another animated character — Lee Corso, in the case — I say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
We can agree on this: Not being suspended beats the heck out of being suspended. But just because those players who were singled out by Roger Goodell for their parts in the Saints’ money-for-mayhem scheme have been cleared to play doesn’t mean the Saints are sitting pretty again.
For one thing, only two of the four — the linebacker Vilma and defensive end Will Smith — are still Saints. And Vilma probably can’t play anytime soon because he’s recovering from a knee injury. (Pro Football Talk speculates that he could be placed on the physically unable to perform list, which means he’d miss a minimum of six games.)
Vilma had been docked the full season, Smith for four games. Given that they’re now eligible to play, you’d have to say the Saints’ defense has been bolstered but not necessarily transformed. For one thing, the Saints had already moved to cover for Vilma’s absence, signing the free agent Curtis Lofton away from the Falcons, and at this stage — Vilma is 30, Lofton 26 — the new man might be the better player. For another, the most important suspended Saint remains shelved.
Head coach Sean Payton won’t coach again until next season, and that’s the reason the Saints won’t win the NFC South. There are some sports — hockey, say — in which coaching isn’t a big deal. In football it’s the biggest of all deals. Without Bill Belichick, would the Patriots be as good? How much difference did Jim Harbaugh make in San Francisco? How much better did the long-suffering Saints get when Payton arrived in New Orleans?
The Saints are about to face a season unlike any in the history of the sport. Their coach can’t coach all year. His interim replacement is Joe Vitt, who can’t work until Game 7 because he’s likewise suspended. Until then, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the interim interim. And, not to be cruel about it, Vitt and Kromer together don’t equal one Payton. The guy may be arrogant even by genius-coach standards, but he’s a difference-maker.
As for the appellate decision: This wasn’t so much a vindication of the Saints as a defeat for Goodell. Never one to err on the side of deliberation, he often acts less like a commissioner than a czar. In this case, Goodell’s attempt to levy rough justice was an effort to be pro-active about an issue (player injuries in general, concussions in specific) that has the potential to besmirch the NFL as nothing ever has.
To read the panel’s decision is to scratch your head at the tangle of legalese. (The panel itself grants that its hair-splitting ruling could be construed as “cumbersome.”) Key sentence: “While we agree, then, that the commissioner had jurisdiction to discipline the players in this case, we are uncertain that the decision handed down was attributable, in any part, to that aspect of the program which lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the system arbitrator.”
Translated, this means Goodell overstepped. He had — and still has — the authority to suspend players for seeking to injure opponents but not for collecting money for inflicting those injuries. (Jurisdiction over monetary matters falls to the “system administrator.” Got that?) Theoretically, Goodell could take another swipe at the players, but surely he won’t. Why risk looking even more vindictive?
If this decision makes the commissioner look bad, that’s not the same as making the Saints look good. They’re still the team that got caught paying bounties, the team without its head coach until next season. They’re also the team that’s going to run second in the NFC South. The Falcons are focused in a way the 2012 Saints can never be.
By Mark Bradley