NEW ORLEANS (AP) - All but four of the 27 current or former Saints that the NFL linked to New Orleans' cash-for-hits bounty system can now look forward to next season free of worry that they'll be forced to miss games, or game checks.
As for those who've been suspended, they were sanctioned as severely as the coaches and general manager punished before them, and now must determine what measures they're willing to take to show NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he got it wrong.
``I intend to fight this injustice, to defend my reputation, to stand up for my team and my profession, and to send a clear signal to the commissioner that the process has failed,'' said Saints linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma, who received the harshest punishment of any player.
Like Saints head coach Sean Payton, Vilma has been suspended for the entire 2012 season. Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the opening four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, will miss the first three games of 2012.
They were all suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars.
``The accusations made against me are completely and 100 percent false, and I plan to appeal,'' Smith said in a statement issued by his publicist.
The league said its investigation showed ``a significant number of players participated'' in a bounty program - either by paying into a pool or collecting from it - that ran from 2009-11 under former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has been suspended indefinitely.
Goodell stressed, however, that ``the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level.''
The losses of Vilma and Smith, combined with the previously announced suspension Payton and suspensions of eight games for general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt, amount to a significant punishment for the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl.
Yet, if Goodell is hoping to move on from the bounty case, the NFL Players Association might not let him. The suspended players have three days to appeal, and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith said the union would fight the ruling. Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, has spoken out in the past about the need for the league to do a better job of protecting players.
Through his agent, Vilma issued a statement saying he is ``shocked and extremely disappointed'' by the punishment and denied he was a bounty ringleader.
``I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player,'' Vilma said. ``I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players.''
Will Smith stated that he has ``never in my career, nor as a captain, asked others to intentionally target and hurt specific opposing players.''
``Through this entire process, the NFL never notified me of what I was being accused of, nor presented me with any evidence or reasoning for this decision,'' Smith said. ``I am interested in discovering who is making these specific and false accusations ... as well as why a decision was made without speaking with me and giving me the opportunity to review the facts.''
DeMaurice Smith said the union ``has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.''
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person and the NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation.
As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized player safety through rules enforcement and the threat of fines and suspensions. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn't do enough to warn them about - or shield them from - the dangers of head injuries.
According to the NFL, its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system with thousands of dollars offered for big hits that sidelined opponents. The NFL said targeted players included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. ``Knockouts'' were worth $1,500 and ``cart-offs'' $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
``In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation,'' Goodell said in a statement.
According to the league, Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked then-Cardinals QB Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings QB Favre out of that season's NFC championship game. The Saints were flagged for roughing Favre twice, and the league later said the Saints should have received another penalty for a high-low hit from two players that hurt Favre's ankle. Favre was able to finish the game, but the Saints won in overtime en route to the NFL title.
Fujita, the NFL said, ``pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool'' during that season's playoffs. Smith, according to the NFL, ``pledged significant sums to the program pool.''
The league said Hargrove ``actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.'' He also ``actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints,'' the league said, adding that he eventually ``submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence'' of the Saints' program, but that he knew about and participated in it.
Vilma will miss out on $1.6 million in base salary in 2012, while Fujita stands to lose more than $640,000, Hargrove more than $385,000, and Smith more than $190,000. Some of their contracts were restructured this offseason, perhaps in anticipation of the punishments.
The Saints, Browns and Packers already have made personnel moves that could help fill the gaps.
The Saints signed three linebackers in free agency. New Orleans' starting right tackle Zach Strief, now entering his seventh season with the club, chose not to offer his opinion of the suspensions, but spoke highly of Vilma.
``Nothing can be gained from sharing how I feel about'' the suspensions, Strief said. ``I will miss Jonathan very much. Knowing him personally, he's a good person. This is going to be a tough thing for him to go through. In terms of his leadership, somebody else will step up and take over.''
The Packers, who also will be without defensive end Mike Neal for four games because he violated the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, drafted two defensive linemen last week. The Browns drafted two linebackers.
``We will respect the commissioner's decision,'' Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. ``Scott is a valued member of the Cleveland Browns, and we look forward to his participation in our offseason program and training camp.''
The Saints and Packers did not comment.
Any payout for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, is against NFL rules. Goodell has said he's found anecdotal evidence of a number of teams running such performance pools, but not on the same level as the Saints.
Goodell's decision was heavily criticized by many players, but not all.
``He's doing the right thing to make sure this doesn't happen ever again,'' New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning said. ``He's been harsh, to try to make a statement saying there is no place for this in the game of football.''
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said on his Twitter page that the penalties were ``ridiculous'' and that he wants ``to see the evidence and hear an explanation.''
Saints veteran linebacker Scott Shanle tweeted that taking the whole season away from Vilma is ``absolutely ludicrous!''
In a memo sent Wednesday to the NFL's 32 teams, Goodell reminded them that ``any program of non-contract bonuses, however it is characterized, is a violation of league rules.'' Also, all players will be told how they can confidentially report rules violations.
In March, Goodell made Payton the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, for trying to cover up the system of extra cash payouts. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft picks.
Fujita, Hargrove and Smith are allowed to participate in offseason activity, including preseason games, before their suspensions take effect. Vilma, though, is suspended immediately and is not slated to be reinstated until after the next Super Bowl in February.
AP Football Writer Howard Fendrich and AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen, Chris Jenkins, Tom Withers and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.