|Paul Tagliabue, whom Roger Goodell succeeded in 2006, is a few weeks from making a ruling. (Getty Images)|
NEW ORLEANS -- Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has advised league officials and players implicated in the NFL's bounty probe that he plans to complete all hearings by Dec. 4 and make a ruling shortly after.
In a document obtained Wednesday by the Associated Press, Tagliabue directs the NFL to produce key witnesses in the New Orleans Saints' cash-for-hits program, including former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.
Four players initially were suspended, but those punishments were vacated and Tagliabue was appointed to oversee new hearings. Meanwhile, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith are still playing.
Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.
For now, only Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses.
They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington, D.C., running from Tuesday through Dec. 4. That means Vilma and Smith likely will be available at least for the Saints' next two games against San Francisco this Sunday and at Atlanta on Nov. 29. They could also play at the New York Giants on Dec. 9.
None of the players have served a single game of their suspensions, though Vilma was barred from attending Saints training camp before commissioner Roger Goodell's initial rulings were vacated during Week 1 of the regular season.
Vilma initially was suspended the entire 2012 season and Smith for four games.
The two other players punished are former Saints: Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now on injured reserve, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove. Hargrove initially was suspended eight games, but that later was reduced to seven with credit given for the first five games he missed as a free agent. Fujita initially was suspended three games and that was later reduced to one game.
In the face of relentless resistance by the NFL Players Association and lawyers separately representing Vilma, who had argued that Goodell could not be objective, the commissioner removed himself as arbitrator in the bounty matter and appointed Tagliabue, his predecessor, in his place on Oct. 19.
Tagliabue noted in his most recent memo that other witnesses could be scheduled. Tagliabue also said he expects to decide by Monday whether to allow the Saints' personnel file on Cerullo to be included as evidence.
Players have argued that Cerullo was the NFL's primary source of information about the Saints' performance pool. They've also argued that Cerullo's credibility is in question because he was fired by the club after the 2009-10 season and he had accused the club of preventing him from getting a job on another NFL coaching staff.
The NFL investigation concluded that Saints players were rewarded for hits that knocked targeted opposing players out of games from 2009-2011. The league said there was evidence that the Saints placed bounties on star quarterbacks including Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers.
Saints players and coaches have acknowledged they had a pool that rewarded players for big plays that included interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks and big hits, similar to programs other teams have had across the league for generations. However, Saints players and coaches say no one ever intended to injure an opposing player.