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Tagliabue’s ruling doesn’t undermine Vilma’s defamation case

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When assessing the decision made by former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to overturn the suspensions imposed on four players, it’s important to understand both what he says and what he doesn’t say.That’s particularly important when assessing the contention that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any teammate who knocked former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC title game, since Vilma’s denial of that claim provides the basis for his defamation lawsuit against Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Early in the 22-page ruling, Tagliabue explains that he is “not reviewing Commissioner Goodell’s October 9, 2012 findings and conclusions de novo.”  Those last two words are a common Latin legal term, which mean “from scratch.”

Basically, Tagliabue didn’t build the house of facts all over again.

“If the parties had intended such a review, they would have written it into the CBA,” Tagliabue says.  “Instead, I am giving appropriate deference to Commissioner Goodell’s reasonable findings and am applying the same standard of review to findings of violation and to findings underlying the level of discipline.  I am not substituting my judgment for the Commissioner’s judgment, except insofar as I have received and considered new material information of which the Commissioner was unaware.  In this instance, based on both the prior record and additional information, I am reviewing the discipline for consistency of treatment, uniformity of standards for parties similarly situated and patent unfairness or selectivity.”

In other words, Tagliabue acted like a traditional appeals court, declining to start the case over and taking advantage of the work that already has been done.  This distinction becomes critical when assessing whether and to what extent Tagliabue’s finding impacts Vilma’s pending lawsuit.

As to the most important factual question presented by the appeal process, Tagliabue doesn’t determine that Vilma offered a bounty on Favre.  Instead, Tagliabue “find[s] there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell’s findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty.”

In other words, Tagliabue believes it was reasonable for Goodell to conclude based on the evidence that Vilma offered a bounty.  But the opposite proposition also could have been accurate — that it would have been reasonable to conclude that Vilma didn’t offer a true and actual bounty.

Indeed, Tagliabue implicitly reached the latter conclusion, since he wasn’t willing to suspend Vilma because Tagliabue couldn’t conclude that the “talk” from Vilma amounted to a real threat, as opposed to “rhetoric and exaggeration.”

“[T]here is little evidence of the tone of any talk about a bounty before the Vikings game,” Tagliabue writes.  “Was any bounty pledged serious?  Was it inspirational only?  Was it typical ‘trash talk’ that occurs regularly before and during games?  The parties presented no clear answers.  No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise.  There was no evidence that Vilma or anyone else paid any money to any player for any bounty-related hit on an opposing player in the Vikings game.”

In other words, Tagliabue wasn’t able to determine that the words uttered by Vilma were real, that he meant what he said and intended to act on it.

Tagliabue used that specific occasion to give more passive-aggressive, big-picture advice to his successor:   “It is essential to recognize that Vilma is being most severely disciplined for ‘talk’ or speech at a team meeting on the evening before the Saints-Vikings game. He is not being punished for his performance on the field and, indeed, none of the discipline of any player here relates to on-field conduct. No Saints’ player was suspended for on-field play by the League after the game in question. If the League wishes to suspend a player for pre-game talk including ‘offers’ to incentivize misconduct, it must start by imposing enhanced discipline for illegal hits that involve the kind of player misconduct that it desires to interdict. The relationship of the discipline for the off-field ‘talk’ and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness.  It rests also on the competence of NFL officiating and the obligation and ability of the League to closely observe playing field misconduct, record it and review for illegal hits or other related misconduct.”

For Vilma’s defamation case, none of this matters.  He insists he didn’t make the offer, others insist he did, and eventually someone else will have to consider the evidence and make factual decisions “from scratch.”  In this regard, the transcript of the testimony from the Tagliabue appeal hearing could be very useful, since the witnesses will have a hard time disowning the testimony they’ve already provided under oath.

The fact that Vilma’s lawyer has called upon Tagliabue to release the transcript publicly suggests that the totality of the testimony could help Vilma.

Thus, regardless of Tagliabue’s belief that Goodell’s conclusion that Vilma made the offer was reasonable, others will eventually tackle that question within the confines of civil litigation, and there’s a chance that Tagliabue’s emphasis on the difference between words and actions will cause the judge and/or the jury to think that Goodell didn’t exercise enough care in distinguishing the two as he should have before publicly painting Vilma as a thug.

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Dolphins cut into Chiefs’ lead

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Big plays on defense and special teams have helped the Dolphins narrow the Chiefs’ lead to 21-15 after three quarters.

On the third offensive play of the quarter, Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick forced Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith to fumble, with defensive end Derrick Shelby recovering for Miami, setting up a one-yard TD reception by Brian Hartline. Later, Jarvis Landry’s 74-yard kickoff return set up a 51-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal for Miami. And then, near the end of the third, Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks sacked Smith in the endzone for a safety.

The Chiefs did put together a scoring drive of their own in the third, with Smith hitting Joe McKnight for an 11-yard TD. But now, the Chiefs must hold off Miami’s second-half charge.

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HGH testing could start in early October

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But for a variety of other big stories, the biggest story in the NFL would be the efforts to keep players from getting artificially bigger.

After more than three years of negotiation, impasse, and other delays, the NFL and NFL Players Association have struck an agreement on HGH testing.

The Friday release from the NFL and NFLPA said that HGH testing, which will entail the drawing of blood from players, will commence by the end of September.  Per multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, the more realistic target is early October, at the earliest.

Currently, there’s nothing further to negotiate.  The deals are done and signed.  Players will be subject to random testing, with the exception that no testing may occur on game days.

Positive tests will be appealed to an independent arbitrator jointly hired and compensated by the NFL and NFLPA.  For a first offense, players will be suspended six games without pay.

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Antonio Cromartie to locker room, Cardinals to lead

Frank Gore, Antonio Cromartie AP

The injuries just keep coming for the Cardinals.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has gone to the locker room for Arizona after suffering an injury to his left leg in the third quarter of the team’s game against the 49ers. Trainers examined Cromartie on the sideline after he exited the game and he was able to walk back to the locker room on his own power, but it’s a big loss for a team that’s already missing Darnell Dockett, Carson Palmer and John Abraham on Sunday afternoon.

The injury came shortly after the Cardinals had drawn within one point of the visitors. After forcing a three-and-out to open the half, Drew Stanton hit Michael Floyd for a 45-yard gain into 49ers territory and followed it up with a pass to John Brown for a touchdown that cut San Francisco’s lead to 14-13.

The defense was able to stop the 49ers without Cromartie, however, and the Cardinals were able to drive for another Brown touchdown. They got there with the help of two questionable personal foul calls for hits on Stanton by Dan Skuta and Patrick Willis that appeared to be far less egregious than the officials throwing the flags believed.

The second half was a problem for San Francisco last week as well and the team’s now been outscored 49-3 in the final 30 minutes of games so far this season. That has to change if the Niners want to avoid a 1-2 start to the season.

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Report: Dislocated hip for Dennis Pitta

Dennis Pitta AP

The Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta during Sunday’s victory over the Browns and they’ll likely be without him in the coming weeks as well.

Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports that Pitta has been diagnosed with a dislocated right hip. That’s the same hip he had surgery on last year to repair a dislocation and fracture. Per Wilson, another fracture hasn’t been ruled out and Pitta’s status for the rest of the season will be up in the air until the doctors have come to a conclusion about the extent of the damage.

“When you’re in the middle of a game you don’t think too much about that stuff, but, yeah, it’s not easy,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Dennis is a good friend. He’s a good teammate and he’s a hell of a player. No matter who it is, it’s tough to see that happen especially when it looks like it might be what it is or it might be serious.”

Owen Daniels would take on a more important role with Pitta out of the lineup, but, as the Ravens learned last season, replacing Pitta isn’t all that easy given Flacco’s comfort level with the tight end.

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Seahawks take halftime lead

sherman AP

The Seahawks are picking up where they left off in the Super Bowl and outplaying the Broncos, but they may have suffered a significant loss in the process.

Seattle, which took a lead into the locker room at halftime, also had to finish the half without starting left tackle Russell Okung, who walked off the field after what appeared to be an injury to his shoulder. The team later said he was questionable to return.

Okung was blocking Broncos defensive end Demarcus Ware and went down appearing to be in a lot of pain. He got up holding his left arm gingerly. Okung is the player most responsible for protecting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and losing Okung for any period of time would hurt.

But the Seahawks appear to be rolling today against the Broncos. Wilson has completed 11 of 13 passes for 145 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and although Peyton Manning has completed 11 of 16 passes and avoided any turnovers, he has just 87 yards through the air. The Seahawks may just have the Broncos’ number.

UPDATE 6:35 p.m. ET: Okung has returned.

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Chiefs take 14-3 halftime lead at Miami

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Some strong running by Jamaal Charles‘ replacement has helped give the Chiefs a halftime lead.

Tailback Knile Davis racked up 69 first-half rushing yards, including a 21-yard TD run off an inside handoff, as Kansas City took a 14-3 lead after two quarters in Miami.

Charles, the Chiefs’ lead back, is inactive with an ankle injury.

The Chiefs also got a solid first half from quarterback Alex Smith, who completed 8-of-11 passes for 112 yards, with the highlight a 20-yard TD pass to tight end Travis Kelce on a crossing pattern.

The Dolphins got on the board at the end of the half on a 22-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis. However, Sturgis missed a 48-yard attempt earlier in the half, and Miami has just the three points to show for gaining 210 first-half yards.

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No suspension for Baker or Peters, but a “ton of fines” coming

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Despite being ejected during Sunday’s game at Philadelphia following a cheap shot that sparked a melee, Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker and Eagles tackle Jason Peters face no further missed time.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, neither player will be suspended for his actions on Sunday.  However, both face stiff fines.

And it won’t just be those two giving money to the league.  According to the source, a “ton of fines” will be levied on the players who participated in the brouhaha.

Baker sparked the fracas with a hit on Philly quarterback Nick Foles after an apparent interception.  The interception was overturned via replay review.

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49ers take 14-6 lead into halftime

Colin Kaepernick, Calais Campbell AP

Drew Stanton got a lot of help from the special teams and defense in a win against the Giants last week, but the first 30 minutes of this week’s contest haven’t brought the same kind of support.

Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers on two 80-yard touchdown drives and the 49ers defense stiffened up once the ball was in their own territory, leaving the Cardinals in a 14-6 hole at halftime in Arizona. Kaepernick showed no hangover from his turnover-filled second half against the Bears last Sunday night as he completed 14-of-18 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown to Michael Crabtree over the first two quarters.

Kaepernick also ran for 45 yards, which came in handy as the team was converting 5-of-7 third downs against the Arizona defense. That failure to get off the field is something the Cardinals didn’t experience last week and it makes for a much harder road the rest of the way because it puts even more pressure on the offense to perform without their starting quarterback.

Stanton did lead one long drive of his own, a 17-play opus that eventually petered out on the San Francisco side of the field. The Cardinals got three points out of it, but it’s clear that the offense is going to need to more than field goal drives over the rest of the game if they’re to make it three straight wins to start the season.

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After loss, Jaguars name Blake Bortles their starter

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Jaguars have switched starting quarterbacks.

Blake Bortles has been named the team’s starter, head coach Gus Bradley said after Jacksonville’s 44-17 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday, according to the Jaguars’ official Twitter feed.

Bortles relieved Henne at halftime and showed promise in his first NFL regular season action, completing 14-of-24 passes for 223 yards with a pair of touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 30 yards. Moreover, Bortles was sacked just once, and he handled pass rush pressure quite well.  On the other side of the ledger, Bortles was intercepted twice, with one pick returned for a score.

Nevertheless, the Jaguars’ offense showed life with Bortles, who wasn’t at all overmatched. These factors made it an easy call for the Jaguars, now 0-3, to make the switch.

While the Jaguars made a major long-term decision Sunday, the Colts (1-2) regained their footing in the short term, racking up 529 yards against Jacksonville’s porous defense. Quarterback Andrew Luck was outstanding, completing 31-of-39 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns.

With the Texans’ loss to the Giants, Indianapolis moved within one game of the AFC South lead. The Colts host the struggling Titans next Sunday.

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Eagles hold off Redskins 37-34 on a chaotic afternoon in Philly

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The best thing about Sunday’s Eagles-Redskins game is that they’re going to play again later this season.

Philadelphia moved to 3-0 with a 37-34 win after 60 minutes filled with all the twists and turns that you’d want to see from an NFL game. There was a huge play by DeSean Jackson in his return to Philadelphia, a full-scale brawl that resulted in a pair of ejections, comebacks by both teams and almost 900 yards of offense between the two teams.

The Redskins had 511 of them in Kirk Cousins’s first start of the season. It’s one that will likely embolden those that feel he’s a better fit for the Redskins offense than Robert Griffin III. Cousins was 30-of-48 for 427 yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon and he was able to make some big plays through the air in the second half to keep the Redskins in the mix after they blew a 10-point lead in the first half. He threw an interception and couldn’t convert a first down after a bad punt gave the Redskins the ball in Eagles territory with two minutes to play, but it was a very strong performance overall for Cousins.

Nick Foles’s numbers weren’t quite as gaudy, but his performance was just as strong. Foles shook off hit after hit, including the Chris Baker block that touched off the aforementioned brawl, to complete 28-of-42 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns. The last of them was a 27-yard strike to Jeremy Maclin just after that brawl, breaking a 27-27 tie and giving the Eagles the lead for good.

It was a tough performance for Foles and he was helped out by Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews at different points. Jackson’s touchdown was a reminder of what the Eagles lost, but Maclin and Matthews (16 catches for 213 yards and three scores between them) made it clear that all is well on the depth chart.

The battering of Foles and the loss of three starting offensive linemen aren’t coincidental, so the Eagles will have to hope that center Jason Kelce can make a quick return after leaving Sunday’s game with an abdomen injury.

All those hits, the fight and Jackson’s theatrics on his touchdown all helped amp up the emotions in Philly on Sunday afternoon, making for one of the more exciting games of the young season. They’ll do it all over again in Week 16.

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Ravens come through late, knock off Browns on last-second field goal

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This one’s going to hurt for Cleveland.

Placekicker Justin Tucker’s 32-yard field goal as time expired gave the Ravens 23-21 victory over the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday.

It was a thoroughly frustrating fourth quarter for the Browns (1-2). First, kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 50-yard field goal and had a 36-yard field goal blocked. Then, with a 21-20 lead and chance to close out the game in the final minutes, the Browns went three-and-out deep in their own end, setting up the Ravens at midfield at the two-minute warning.

Two plays later, the Ravens made the game’s pivotal play. Wide receiver Steve Smith beat cornerback Joe Haden off the line, and quarterback Joe Flacco hit him for a 32-yard gain. Now, the Ravens were in slam-dunk field goal range, and Tucker — one of the game’s clutch kickers — gave Baltimore the win.

In victory, Flacco completed 19-of-31 passes for 217 yards with one TD and one pick. The Ravens’ ground game was very productive even without Bernard Pierce, racking up 160 yards. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro helped pick up the slack with 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

The Browns got another solid performance from quarterback Brian Hoyer, who connected on 19-of-25 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown. But Hoyer also went over the line of scrimmage on a fourth quarter TD pass to Miles Austin, resulting in a loss of down. On the next play, Cundiff’s field goal was blocked.

And in the end, Cleveland couldn’t close out Baltimore (2-1).

The Ravens suffered a potentially serious personnel loss in the win, as tight end Dennis Pitta departed the game on a stretcher after a right hip injury. He was taken to a hospital, according to the club.

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Matt Cassel has broken foot, which means it’s Teddy Time

Teddy Bridgewater AP

The Vikings’ starting quarterback job is Teddy Bridgewater’s for the forseeable future.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters after the game that starter Matt Cassel has several broken bones in his foot, which means the job is Bridgewater’s by default.

Asked if Bridgewater was his starter moving forward, Zimmer replied: “That is correct.”

The rookie did not look overwhelmed in his first NFL action, despite losing to the Saints. It wasn’t the toughest defense to play against, but there were at least some signs of life from their offense.

And since they don’t figure to have Adrian Peterson back on the field anytime soon or ever, any bit of hope on offense is a good thing.

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Rashad Jennings runs wild in first Giants win of year

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The Giants got their first win of the 2014 season on Sunday and they did it with a lot of help from one of their biggest offseason acquisitions.

Running back Rashad Jennings posted a career-best 176 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries as the Giants cruised past the Texans 30-17 in New Jersey. Jennings was helped by a strong performance by the Giants offensive line, but he made the most of his opportunities by hitting holes quickly and keeping things moving after initial contact.

It was exactly the kind of power running game the Giants wanted to add to their team and you could see the possibilities for their offense on Sunday. When the Giants weren’t battering the Texans with Jennings, they were having Eli Manning throw quick passes that his receivers held onto more often than they did in the first two weeks of the season. Manning wound up 21-of-28 for 234 yards and two touchdowns and Victor Cruz was a positive factor for the first time of the season with 107 yards and a score.

All the quick passing helped keep J.J. Watt in check. Watt had an impressive sack early and blew up Jennings on one running play, but the Giants were able to keep him from dominating matters up front and that’s a big win for an offense these days.

Houston lost for the first time of the year and one major, if obvious, takeaway is that they’re better off when they don’t have to rely on Ryan Fitzpatrick to generate the lion’s share of their offense. Fitzpatrick settled down after getting picked off twice in the first half, but those picks were damaging and the team’s offensive totals got a boost by an 80-yard scoring drive when matters were already settled. If running back Arian Foster gets healthy, the Texans should be able to get back on track but things look a lot bleaker if he’s out for any extended period.

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Chargers overcome another injury, beat Bills 22-10

Philip Rivers AP

The Chargers keep losing parts, but keep making plays.

They improved to 2-1 with a 22-10 win over the Bills, which saw them get even thinner on offense.

The Chargers continued to run the ball, even after losing Danny Woodhead to an early ankle injury (more troubling as they were already without Ryan Mathews).

While replacement Donald Brown wasn’t eye-popping, he ran well enough to keep the clock and chains moving. He had 31 carries for 62 yards, which was important for the time they took more than the ground they covered.

That was all Philip Rivers needed to keep things balanced. Rivers threw a pair of touchdown passes to Eddie Royal and was 18-of-25 for 256 yards, consistently able to get yards in chunks.

The Bills never found any offensive rhythm, in their first loss of the season. Much of that had to do with San Diego’s defense, but they looked disjointed throughout.

Sammy Watkins finished the day with two catches for a grand total of 19 yards, hardly what they’re expecting from their first-round pick (and next year’s).

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Jason Peters, Chris Baker ejected after brawl in Philly

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The Redskins and Eagles are having an old-fashioned NFC East slugfest. Literally.

The game came to a halt in the fourth quarter when a hit on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles touched off a wild brawl between members of both teams. Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker laid out Foles with a blindside block during an interception return, which led Eagles tackle Jason Peters to confront him and then both sides spilled onto the sideline in one of the bigger fights in recent memory.

There was far too much going on to give a proper blow-by-blow, but it ended with both teams being directed to their benches over the public address system. Baker and Redskins left tackle Trent Williams were both immediately ejected from the game.  Referee Tony Corrente later explained that not Williams but Eagles tackle Jason Peters was ejected. That leaves the Eagles with no reserve offensive linemen as Jason Kelce was already lost to an abdomen injury.

Foles remained in the game and the Eagles kept the ball because all of the above need not have happened. The ball hit the ground before Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland corralled it, but it was incorrectly ruled a clean pick. It was overturned on replay, but not before the rest of a 27-27 game was greatly impacted by bad feelings spilling out all over the place.

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