New Orleans • Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players in the league’s bounty investigation of the club.
Tagliabue, however, found that three of the players engaged in conduct detrimental to the league. He said they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including hard tackles — that could merit fines. But he stressed that the team’s coaches were very much involved.
“Unlike Saints’ broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects,” said a portion of ruling released by the NFL. “My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell’s findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”
Tagliabue was appointed by his successor, commissioner Roger Goodell, to handle a second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the Saints’ cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been given a full-season suspension, while defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove each received shorter suspensions.
Fujita was the only player cleared of conduct detrimental to the league by Tagliabue.
None of the players sat out any games because of suspensions. They have been allowed to play while appeals are pending, though Fujita is on injured reserve and Hargrove is not with a team.
Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, and now those have been dismissed.
Meanwhile, 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 to see how the latest round of appeals played out before deciding whether to get involved.
With the player suspensions overturned, the end of a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents could be near.
NFL investigators found that Vilma and Smith were ring-leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as “cart-offs” and “knockouts.” The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program.
Goodell also suspended 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 NFL Players Association, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses in the probe. 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.
Around the league
Eagles •LeSean McCoy expects to step right into his starting role. Michael Vick has no choice but to stand on the sideline.
Vick and McCoy returned to practice Tuesday after missing several weeks with concussions, and both players could be active when Philadelphia hosts Cincinnati on Thursday night.
In McCoy’s case, he’s still the No. 1 running back. Vick, however, lost his starting job to rookie quarterback Nick Foles.
Jets • Braylon Edwards is back with the New York Jets — a week after bashing them.
The veteran wide receiver was awarded to New York off waivers from Seattle on Tuesday as the Jets try to bolster their injured receiving corps with a familiar face. Edwards, waived by Seattle on Monday, developed a good rapport with Mark Sanchez in helping New York to consecutive trips to the AFC title game in 2009 and 2010.
Edwards reiterated his feelings for Sanchez last week when he took to Twitter and criticized the Jets organization.
49ers • Demarcus Dobbs’ season is over with San Francisco after he was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a right knee problem.
Dobbs was injured when he landed awkwardly in the first half of Sunday’s 27-13 victory against the Miami Dolphins and he had to be carted off the field before halftime.
Cowboys • The Dallas Cowboys paid tribute to Jerry Brown at a private memorial on Tuesday that included Josh Brent, the player charged with intoxication manslaughter in the one-car accident that killed his teammate.
Quarterback Tony Romo, owner Jerry Jones and other players, executives and staff members arrived at the service on a sunny but chilly afternoon at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas.
Bears • Chicago kicker Robbie Gould will miss the rest of the season after injuring his left calf, another blow to the stumbling Bears with a big NFC North showdown coming up Sunday against the Packers.
The Bears placed Gould on injured reserve Tuesday and signed veteran kicker Olindo Mare to a one-year contract.
• Cincinnati at Philadelphia, 6:20 p.m., NFL Network
• Green Bay at Chicago, 11 a.m.
• Tampa Bay at New Orleans, 11 a.m.
• Minnesota at St. Louis, 11 a.m.
• Indianapolis at Houston, 11 a.m.
• N.Y. Giants at Atlanta, 11 a.m.
• Washington at Cleveland, 11 a.m.
• Jacksonville at Miami, 11 a.m.
• Denver at Baltimore,11 a.m.
• Carolina at San Diego, 2:05 p.m.
• Detroit at Arizona,2:05 p.m.
• Seattle vs. Buffalo at Toronto, 2:05 p.m.
• Kansas City at Oakland, 2:25 p.m.
• Pittsburgh at Dallas, 2:25 p.m.
• San Francisco at New England, 6:20 p.m., Ch. 5
• N.Y. Jets at Tennessee, 6:30 p.m., ESPN