Earlier this week, the NFL handed down round two of its suspensions for Bounty-gate. The hefty suspensions to Jonathan Vilma (sixteen games) and Anthony Hargrove (eight games) made it quite clear: Roger Goodell's NFL will not tolerate players who deliberately attempt to injure other players, and will get doubly mad when you lie about it after the fact. And while I don't think there are many players or fans who would object to the message, there are plenty who would object to how hefty the penalties are. Indeed, the NFLPA and the players involved have already filed an appeal with the NFL. But what are the facts here? And, more importantly for Bears fans, how will the Hargrove suspension affect the Packers?
It seems to be a pretty open-and-shut case, at least where Hargrove is concerned. He had been interviewed by the NFL back in 2010, during the original bounty investigation, and denied the existence of the Saints' bounty system. Later, when the facts came out earlier this year, he turned around on his original denial and provided the NFL with a signed statement affirming that he did in fact participate in the bounty system. It is his willingness to fess up to his "crime" that earned him a lighter sentence: Vilma's consistent denials earned him a suspension twice as long. The problem with the appeal is that Hargrove's statement will probably be a key piece of evidence against him: hard to argue you didn't do something that you have already admitted to. Given that Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and Hargrove have all admitted the facts of the case, the appeal doesn't have much of a chance of persuading Goodell that the bounty system wasn't exactly what he thinks it was: a system in which players and coaches funded a pool that paid out when defensive players injured members of opposing teams. While the NFL Players Association might be correcting in saying no evidence has been presented of a bounty system, this evidence most certainly exists and is probably pretty damning given the suspensions the NFL has handed out.
But will the Packers skate by this season the way the Vikings did when the Williams wall was up for suspension in the StarCaps case? If the NFLPA and the players wanted, they could easily attempt to tie this thing up in court for the 2012 season. Unlike the StarCaps case, however, this situation doesn't run afoul of the law the way the StarCaps case did. The Williams were able to avoid suspensions for over two seasons by forcing Minnesota and federal judges to untangle the intersections between the CBA and Minnesota state laws regarding drug testing, but there are no laws that provide employees the right to pay each other to deliberately injure people. Quite the contrary, actually: the old and new CBAs both explicitly forbid extra incentives such as bounties to be paid out officially or unofficially. The new CBA is quite clear on how suspensions and appeals work. The commissioner decides, the players can appeal to former players Ted Cottrell and Art Shell, and that's it. There is no appealing the suspensions to a "real" court here: the players agreed to the system in place when they signed the new CBA. The players will have their appeal, but not their day in court.
The best-case scenario for the Packers would be for Hargrove to serve his suspension for the first eight games of the season - if a coach had to choose, he would probably rather have a player for the second half of the season instead of the first. The Packers are pretty well covered if Hargrove's suspension is upheld, as they took three defensive linesmen in this year's draft. But the dropoff on their defensive line after Hargrove and B.J. Raji is pretty steep, and DE Mike Neal is already suspended for the first four games of the season for violations of the substance abuse program. In any case, the loss of Hargrove won't do too much damage to the Packers D, but it certainly isn't doing them any favors. While the Packers rely more on their linebackers and defensive backs when it comes to sacks - Raji and Jarius Wynn were their only linesmen to even record a sack last season - it's hard to get those other pass-rushers open if your front three aren't eating up blockers. And, considering that the Packers are notioriously reluctant to pick up any free agents, they must have seen a real need for Hargrove's talents to pick him up. His absence won't break their defense, but it will mean the front of their defensive line might be awful soft come September 13th. Somewhere, J'Marcus Webb is smiling...
My take on the actual suspension? Cosmic justice, served about fifteen years too late. Every NFL player obviously runs the risk of injury, but not the type of injuries that come when other teams take cheap shots on you. Considering that the Forrest Gregg Packers openly kept "hit lists" of Bears they were trying to injure back in the 80s, this suspension strikes me as a bit of that old Packers cheap play coming back to haunt them. Hopefully, players get the message that hits like this (Warning: this link may cause you to hate the Packers more than you already do) are never acceptable, since Charles Martin's two game suspension apparently didn't do the trick. You can't take the injuries out of sports, but you can do everything possible to ensure that players aren't out to injure each other on purpose. With these suspensions, the NFL has finally taken a step in that direction, and I for one think it's a good thing.