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."