The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.
He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including hard tackles — while Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," Tagliabue said in his ruling. "However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
Tagliabue said he decided, in this particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties involved to eliminate player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing player safety.
"To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines," his ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw the second round of appeals by players, who initially opposed his appointment.
The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment of players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether the pledges players made were genuine, or simply motivational ploys, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated a pattern of dirty play on the field.
"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," Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion. "If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or 'bounties' from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees commented on Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
The Saints opened the season 0-4 and are now 5-8 and virtually out of the playoffs after appearing in the playoffs the three previous seasons, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title to conclude the 2009 season.
Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, only to have them overturned.
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the league said in a statement.
"The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the (NFL's collective bargaining agreement) to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."
The players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest appeal to play out before deciding whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday giving the NFLPA and Vilma until Wednesday to notify the court if they found Tagliabue's ruling acceptable.
The NFLPA indicated that it was largely satisfied by how the process worked out, so some federal court claims against the NFL could be dropped on Wednesday, even as Vilma's defamation claims remain.