From Comcast SportsNetHoping to close the book on bounties, the NFL suspended New Orleans Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma without pay for all of next season Wednesday and gave shorter bans to three other players for their leading roles in the team's cash-for-hits system that knocked key opponents out of games from 2009-11.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. Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars.The league said its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties -- by ponying up cash or collecting it -- but noted that "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level." Add the losses of Vilma and Smith to the previously announced suspension of head coach Sean Payton for all of 2012, along with shorter penalties for general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl.As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized the importance of player safety via rules enforcement and threats of fines or 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.If Goodell aims 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 is a member of the NFLPA's executive committee who 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 denying he was a bounty ringleader."I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. 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," Vilma said. He added: "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, to the detriment of me, my teammates, the New Orleans Saints and the game."Will Smith also denied a role in the bounties."I have never in my career, nor as a captain asked others, to intentionally target and hurt specific opposing players. I was in no way involved in establishing ... a bounty program. The accusations made against me are completely and one-hundred percent false, and I plan to appeal," he said via statement sent by his publicist. "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. I am interested in discovering who is making these specific and false accusations, and 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.According to the NFL, its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system for three seasons, with thousands of dollars offered for big hits that sidelined opponents. Originally, the league said 22 to 27 defensive players were involved in the illegal scheme, which was orchestrated by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and started in the season New Orleans won its only Super Bowl championship.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; andor obstructed the 2010 investigation," Goodell said in a statement.According to the league, Vilma, a linebacker, offered 10,000 in cash 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 in that game, and the league later said they should have received another penalty for a brutal high-low hit from two players that hurt Favre's ankle. He 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-performancebounty 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 program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."Vilma will miss out on 1.6 million in base salary in 2012, while Fujita stands 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; 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; and the Browns drafted two linebackers."We will respect the Commissioner's decision. Scott is a valued member of the Cleveland Browns, and we look forward to his participation in our offseason program and training camp," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said.The other two clubs did not immediately comment.Any payout for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, is against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently -- just not on the same scale as was found in New Orleans.Goodell's decision was heavily criticized via Twitter by many players. But not all."I think he's doing the right thing to make sure this doesn't happen ever again. There's no room for any kind of bounty system in the NFL. It's a physical sport, and you've got to respect the game," 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."James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a linebacker suspended by the NFL for a game last season after an illegal hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, tweeted that the penalties were "ridiculous" and suggested that Goodell's crackdown is motivated by the concussion lawsuits and a desire to increase the regular season to 18 games.Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted: "I want to see the evidence and hear an explanation."Reggie Bush, a running back who played for the Saints from 2006-10 and now is with the Miami Dolphins, wrote on Twitter that the suspensions were "outrageous" and "Next thing you know we'll be playing two hand touch football! (hash)Lame"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" and said that every head coach must review those rules with assistants and players during mini-camp or preseason training camp.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. Goodell also indefinitely banned Williams, who was hired in January to run the St. Louis Rams' defense. Loomis was barred for eight games; Vitt for six. 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 will be reinstated after the coming season's Super Bowl is played in his team's city."Nothing can be gained from sharing how I feel about" his teammates' penalties, Saints right tackle Zach 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 Caps lost their second preseason game on Tuesday night to the Montreal Canadiens, but it's the preseason. The score doesn't matter. What does matter is how the players played. Here's who looked good and who needs to up their game.
3 players who impressed:
Madison Bowey: When Bowey is distributing the puck, it looks like his teammates have magnets on their tape. Every pass from him was crisp and on target. Defensively, he finished the game with a minus-2, but he was hardly the only player to struggle on the defensive end of the ice on Tuesday. He will continue to develop his defensive skills in Hershey, but for now Bowey looks every bit the puck-moving, offensive defenseman the Caps hoped they were getting when they drafted him. In today's NHL, having that type of defenseman on your team is a major plus.
Zach Sanford: The Caps want to keep a 14th forward on the roster this season and in his NHL (preseason) debut, Sanford did everything he could to lay claim to that spot. It took a few minutes for him to settle into the game, but he didn't look out of place at all. He simply looked like a rookie trying to adjust to his first NHL experience. As the game went along, he looked more and more comfortable. What is really impressive about Sanford is his positioning and what he does away from the puck. He always seems to be exactly where he is supposed to be. That positioning ultimately set up his goal late in the third period. Sanford fought off a few hits to maintain his position in front of the net, setting up a perfect screen on Montreal goalie Zachary Fucale. Because of his positioning, he was able to deflect a shot from Connor Hobbs into the net past the helpless netminder. It was not a perfect game for Sanford by any means. Late in the second, he gave up the puck on a bad turnover and compounded the mistake by tripping Michael McCarron, but those kinds of mistakes are to be expected from someone who went straight from college to the NHL preseason. Overall, it was a very impressive performance.
Nathan Walker: When Andrew Shaw boarded Connor Hobbs in the second period, the first player to go after the gritty veteran was Nathan Walker. It didn't matter that Shaw has played in four NHL seasons or has 13 NHL fights on his resume, it didn't matter that he was going to get his butt kicked — he was going to stand up for his teammate. The biggest strike against Walker is his size. He is very generously listed as 5-foot-8. I've seen him in the locker room and let me tell you, there is no way he is that tall. But any fear the team may have had about Walker's ability to handle the size of the NHL has been erased in just two preseason games. Clearly he is not going to let himself be pushed around. At this point, I would be surprised if he does not get his first NHL game at some point this season.
3 players who need to show improvement:
Brett Connolly: Connolly's signing was a surprise move by the Caps in the offseason. He is a former first-round draft pick still trying to live up to his potential. He is going to make the roster, but as a new player, the Caps are still trying to determine just where he fits into the lineup. That means he has more at stake in this preseason than most of his NHL teammates. Connolly registered six hits, but zero shots on net and was completely unable to take advantage of the weaker preseason roster Montreal played. Connolly is a sniper trying to establish his skill and he looked like a fourth-line grinder. If this is how he will play, there's no reason to play him over someone like Stanislav Galiev.
Liam O'Brien: In 2014, Liam O'Brien made the Caps' roster after a strong camp and stuck around for 13 games before getting sent down to the AHL. Two years later, he doesn't look close to that level. O'Brien took an early interference penalty as he slid into goalie Al Montoya. He added a second penalty in the third period as he was upset with a no-call on Nathan Beaulieu and kept trying to draw a fight with him until the referee ultimately sent him to the box. The days when teams could carry enforcers on the fourth line who did little else but fight and take penalties are over. O'Brien has to establish that he has more to offer the Caps and he failed to do so.
Darren Dietz: For the most part, Darren Dietz actually played a decent game on Tuesday. He had six hits and skated well against his former team. There was one major mistake, however, that really stuck out. In the second period, the Caps were about to go on the power play as Jeremy Grégoire slashed Zach Sill in the wrist. At the end of the play, Grégoire really tried to press his luck by giving Sill a little push into the boards. Grégoire is a 21-year-old player trying to make an impression by taking on one of the toughest guys on the ice. Sill is a 28-year-old, 6-foot-1, 202-pound veteran with 32 fights in the last five years in the NHL and AHL. He can take care of himself. Dietz, however, skated in and landed a vicious cross-check to the back of Grégoire and was called for roughing, thus negating the Caps' power play. There was no reason for Dietz to get involved in that scrum. Sill doesn't need him to fight off Grégoire, he could have easily brushed him aside. The referees had already established that they are calling a very tight game so it was no surprise to see Dietz sent to the box. He needs to know better than to lay that kind of hit on the back of an opposing player and risk a penalty in order to protect someone who didn't really need it.
MORE CAPITALS: MARCUS JOHANSSON SCORES FROM STRAIGHT ON VS. CANADIENS
If guys like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon play to their capabilities, the Nationals could make do without Wilson Ramos this postseason, at least on offense.
But even those guys can't do it all by themselves. The much more likely scenario involves a collective effort, one in which contributions from all-around lift the Nationals as a team and help compensate for the loss of one of their best and most consistent players. Collective efforts like Tuesday night when both of Ramos' replacements - Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino - chipped in on offense, Rendon provided the big swing and other bench players like Stephen Drew and Wilmer Difo made pivotal plays in their 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Lobaton called a strong game behind the dish, helping starter Max Scherzer adjust after allowing two runs in his first three innings to toss three scoreless after that. He then broke up Diamondbacks' starter Matt Koch's no-hitter in the sixth with a leadoff single. That ignited a four-run rally for the Nats, who took the lead and never relinquished it.
"I don't want to get a no-hitter," Lobaton said. "I got a good result and it was good for the team. We got a rally and we won."
"With [Ramos] going down for the year, that’s just heartbreaking," Scherzer said. "But Loby’s a guy that we need to step up and he’s the one who started off that inning."
Lobaton was replaced on the basepaths by Severino, who is faster than Lobaton, who happens to be dealing with a sore right ankle. Severino would later score after moving to third on walks drawn by Trea Turner and Difo. Severino came home on a sacrifice fly hit to left by Drew.
Lobaton and Severino will be a tag team partnership moving forward this season with Ramos out. They will need to spell each other and work together to try and recreate the production Ramos provided as a standout both at the plate and behind it.
On Tuesday, they pulled through.
"That's what they're going to have to do," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what they're going to have to do to contribute."
Their night also involved a lot of communication once Severino replaced Lobaton. A veteran with more experience catching the Nationals' pitching staff, Lobaton advised Severino throughout the game about how to call it. That's something Ramos often does for Lobaton.
"That is good for a guy that is not playing every time. It's the same with me, I always talk to Wily about the pitchers and what they are doing," Lobaton said. "I try to communicate more, like what he's been doing and what he's working on. So, I try to do the same with Sevi. This is working in the game, this is not. It can be more easy for him when he goes out."
Severino scored the first run and later in the frame Rendon drove in three more on a homer to left field off Randall Delgado. Rendon was pleased to see the foundation laid ahead of him that inning.
"That’s a great example, first day, stepping up,” he said. "Definitely frustration [with Ramos' injury]. You never like to see a teammate get hurt… obviously he’s going to be missed. He’s a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It’s going to be awesome to watch.”
The Nationals have five more games before the regular season is over. To capture a World Seires, they will need to win 11 more after that. It won't always be as smooth asTuesday night, but the Nationals demonstrated well to themselves what it will take to get by without their star catcher.
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