New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma are eligible to play in Sunday’s season opener after a three-person appeals panel on Friday overturned their suspension for their role in the bounty scandal.
Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Smith was banned for four games after Goodell said a three-year investigation showed Saints players ran a pay-for-performance system that paid bonuses for intentionally injuring opposing players.
Vilma and Smith and two former Saints players -- defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who was released by the Green Bay Packers last month, and linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now with the Cleveland Browns -- were suspended for eight and three games, respectively.
They also had their suspensions overturned by a panel headed up by arbitrator Stephen Burbank -- for now.
Vilma tweeted after the decision, “Victory Is Mine!!!!”
Smith also took to Twitter to share the news of the decision: “Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution.. And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal.”
The panel, which issued a four-page decision, unanimously voted to send the case back to Goodell because they said it’s unclear if the suspensions fall under his jurisdiction according to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
As a result, the NFL issued a statement saying the four players are eligible to play this weekend.
“Consistent with the panel’s decision, Commissioner Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the league’s pay-for-performance/bounty rule,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.”
Aiello warned that even though the players can play now, the case isn’t over.
There was no immediate comment from the Saints, who play the Washington Redskins on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Interim coach Aarom Kromer said Thursday that Smith, a nine-year veteran, could probably get back up to speed in a day because he was with the team during training camp played in the preseason.
Vilma is another story because he had three surgical procedures on his knee this spring and didn’t participate in the team’s offseason program before his suspension kicked in when training camp started in late July.
As a result, he was not allowed to use the team’s training facility in Metairie to get treatment from trainers and doctors and it’s not clear when he’ll be able to return to the field.
The decision by the three-person appeals panel does not affect the suspensions of Saints coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, General Manager Mickey Loomis or assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt.
Payton and Williams, who left to take a job with the St. Louis Rams, received season-long suspensions from Goodell, while Loomis and Vitt were banned for eight and six games, respectively.
The bans for Loomis and Vitt began on Monday.