NEW ORLEANS — Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Will Smith are back in the NFL — for now.
The suspensions of the three and free agent Anthony Hargrove for their roles in the Saints' bounty scandal were lifted Friday by an appeals panel.
Smith, still with the Saints and suspended for four games, and Fujita, with the Browns and suspended for three games, probably will play in Sunday's season openers. Vilma, also still with the Saints and suspended for the season, will sit while recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee. The Packers released Hargrove, who was suspended for eight games, last month.
Vilma referenced the TV show Family Guy, tweeting, "Victory is mine!!!! — stewie griffin."
Added Fujita: "I'm overwhelmed with all the support. Thank you so much everyone. Can't tell you how much it means to me."
The ruling does not affect New Orleans coach Sean Payton (suspended for the season), interim coach Joe Vitt (six games), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) or ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinitely).
The suspensions, however, were not voided. The panel ordered commissioner Roger Goodell to issue new punishments. The league said there was not a timetable for Goodell to act, saying only he would do so in an "expedited" fashion.
The panel did not address the merits of the NFL's case. It said Stephen Burbank, a league arbitrator, not Goodell, should discipline the players if they received money because it involves circumvention of the salary cap. Goodell, it said, can discipline the players only if they intended to injure opponents because it involves conduct detrimental to the game.
Players and coaches have testified under oath in a related federal court case they never intended to injure opposing players.
"We are certainly hoping the appeals board has made it clear the commissioner tried to grab jurisdiction and impose penalties over an area he does not have oversight," Vilma's lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, said. "The factual record in the court makes it clear he has acted in a biased and inappropriate manner."
In a memo sent to every team, NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash wrote, "Nothing in today's decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental. Nor does the decision in any way suggest what discipline would be appropriate for conduct that lies within the authority of the commissioner."
The NFL granted roster exemptions to the Saints and Browns, meaning they can carry up to 55 and 54 players, respectively.
"It's huge," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Those are two huge leaders we've got. They're great players. We've got a talented team, but you add Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, our talent level goes up that much. For our team, it's a break."
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Even if Vilma could not play right away, Jenkins said his presence in the locker room and meetings would be valuable.
At Browns headquarters, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said Fujita can make an immediate impact.
"I'm confident Scott has been keeping his conditioning up, and he knows the system," said Jackson, a graduate of Seminole High. "He's got, what, 12 years in? He'll be fine. If he's able to come back, there will be a lot of excitement in this locker room."
The appeals panel, two retired federal judges and a Georgetown law professor, was created by the collective bargaining agreement signed last year. It takes over the duties of David Doty, a Minnesota district court judge who ruled for the players in several previous cases.
It met last week to hear arguments from the players union, which appealed Burbank's ruling that Goodell had the authority to hear and rule on the players' appeals.