Finding fault with nearly everyone tied to the New Orleans Saints' bounty case, from the coaches to Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue tossed out the suspensions of four players Tuesday and condemned the team for obstructing the investigation.
In a surprising rejection of his successor's overreaching punishments, Tagliabue wrote that he would "now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon" 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 essentially absolved Fujita, but did agree 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."
It was a ruling that allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first made "Saints bounties" a household phrase: The NFL pointed to the determination that Goodell's facts were right; the NFL Players Association issued a statement noting that Tagliabue said "previously issued discipline was inappropriate."
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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 is on injured reserve; Hargrove is not with a team.
Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to oversee a second round of player appeals, 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.
Tagliabue said he decided 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.
Vick, McCoy might play against Bengals
Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy returned to practice Tuesday after missing several weeks with concussions, and both players could be active when the Philadelphia Eagles host 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.
Vick and McCoy still must be cleared by an independent neurologist and the team doctor before playing in a game. Vick, who was injured on Nov. 11, has missed four straight games. McCoy got hurt the following week at Washington.
Around the league
Bears: 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 and signed veteran kicker Olindo Mare to a one-year contract.
Cowboys: Defensive tackle Josh Brent, who police say was driving drunk and caused the wreck that killed practice squad linebacker and roommate Jerry Brown last week, was back with his teammates Tuesday for a private memorial honoring Brown.
Players and team officials left without talking to reporters after the hour-long service on a chilly afternoon at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, but Coach Jason Garrett had made it clear that Brent was still a part of the Cowboys family.
"We're going to support Josh 100 percent in every way that we can," Garrett said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had "no issues" with Brent being at team facilities while the manslaughter case against him works its way through the courts.
Steelers: Pittsburgh suspended running back Rashard Mendenhall for its game Sunday at Dallas for conduct detrimental to the team. Pittsburgh promoted running back Baron Batch from the practice squad to take the 25-year-old Mendenhall's place.
Monday's late game
Patriots 42, Texans 14: Host New England rolled over Houston, stamping itself once again as the team to fear in the AFC — and making the Texans look like pretenders.
Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns and 296 yards as New England manhandled the team with the league's best record. The Patriots (10-3), who already own the AFC East title, won their seventh straight and moved one game behind the Texans (11-2) for the conference's top seed.