The decision was stunning. Count me as one of the many shocked that Paul Tagliabue vacated all player discipline from the bounty fallout.
The players say they're vindicated with the ruling. But don't confuse vindication with victory. The Saints did not win with Tuesday's ruling.
Of all the suspensions, fines and lost draft picks the NFL handed the Saints, only one truly mattered enough to make this their first irrelevant December since the dreaded Katrina season of 2005.
As I combed through Tagliabue's 22-page decision, Sean Payton's name was not on the list of vacated suspensions. And in my view, that's the only one that truly mattered.
Jonathan Vilma's, Will Smith's, Mickey Loomis' and Joe Vitt's punishments were clearly harsh and difficult for each person. But they weren't enough to cripple an entire season.
Payton's season-long dagger was.
Smith didn't miss a game all season. Vilma didn't miss a game due to suspension. Did it really matter? They're still sitting at 5-8 and playing for a defense that, while they've improved, at one point in the season was flirting with records -- and not the records the Saints have been accustomed to under Payton.
Without Payton, the Saints have looked very un-Saints-like. They've been consistently inconsistent -- capable of flashes of greatness, but it came in teases, not true threats. And it's that constant up-and-down that's convinced me how sorely they missed their true commander in chief.
In terms of paychecks and games (not reputation), Tuesday's ruling essentially gave Saints players back something they never really lost.
But what was lost, Tagliabue made sure would never be returned: the 2012 Saints season.
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