BEREA: Through all the hearings, rulings, grievances and appeals, Scott Fujita remained confident he would be permitted to play in Week 1.
He was right.
The Browns were granted a roster exemption Friday from the NFL, and they activated Fujita after a three-member appeals panel lifted his suspension, along with those of other players punished by the league over the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal.
The NFL said the players were reinstated and are eligible to play this weekend. Fujita will probably start at strongside linebacker Sunday when the Browns host the Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener for both teams.
“We’ve got up until right before game time to put the roster together,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “But I don’t see any reason why he can’t play.”
The exemption allows the Browns to carry 54 players on their roster instead of the usual 53, so they did not need to cut anyone upon Fujita’s removal from the reserve/suspended by commissioner list. They still may dress only 46 players for the game.
Fujita’s bout with the NFL is not over, but he won the most recent round. He did not immediately reply to an e-mail from the Beacon Journal, though he reacted to the development on Twitter.
“I’m overwhelmed with all the support,” Fujita tweeted. “Thank you so much everyone. Can’t tell you how much it means to me.”
Starting middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said Fujita’s return would be an emotional lift for the Browns.
“It’s a guy that we all well respect in the locker room,” Jackson said. “We hate to see him go through this ordeal. He just had a new baby [girl] in the family, and he’s gotta deal with this cloud that’s over his name right now. If you know Scott, you know Scott’s a great guy, and you hate for any guy to go through what he’s going through right now. To have him back and have him not deal with it at all for the short term is great for him.”
The NFL accused Fujita of contributing money to a pool that paid players for intentionally injuring opponents when he played for the Saints during the 2009 season. Fujita, who signed with the Browns in 2010, repeatedly denied the allegations and said he paid teammates for big plays like sacks and interceptions but not for hurting anyone.
Fujita’s suspension for the first three games of the season kicked in Aug. 31. For a week, he was not allowed to spend time at the Browns’ headquarters. He remained in Northeast Ohio and worked out on his own at Baldwin Wallace University, whose campus is around the block from the team’s training facility.
“Weirdest thing about training at Baldwin Wallace this week is hearing the whistles/horns at my team’s practice, literally a [quarter]-mile away,” Fujita tweeted.
Although the panel’s decision allowed Fujita to rejoin the Browns, it does not permanently void his suspension.
“Consistent with the panel’s decision, Commissioner [Roger] Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the league’s pay-for-performance/bounty rule,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said. “Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.”
Aiello said Goodell would not rule on the suspensions before the games Sunday, the Times-Picayune reported.
The panel’s decision states that Special Master Stephen Burbank, not Goodell, should discipline players for receiving money from a pool that paid for big plays, and Goodell’s role should be limited to whether he can prove the players intended to hurt opponents, which would fall in the category of conduct detrimental to the game, according to the Associated Press. The decision will probably put the players’ federal lawsuits against the league on hold until Goodell reissues punishments.
In the meantime, the Browns welcome Fujita back. Without him, they had only two linebackers with NFL experience: Jackson and Kaluka Maiava, the starter on the weak side. Undrafted rookie L.J. Fort was preparing to start on the strong side because rookie James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick and Fujita’s primary backup, has been ruled out for Sunday with an oblique/ribs injury.
The Browns are 1-12 in season openers since their expansion era began in 1999. Fujita injured his left knee in the preseason opener Aug. 10 and didn’t practice again until Aug. 28, but Jackson is confident that Fujita will be able to step into the lineup and help the team’s chances of upsetting the Eagles.
“He’s been doing it a long time, so it’s like riding a bike,” Jackson said. “I’m confident Scott is, he’s keeping his conditioning up, and he knows the system. He’s been doing it a long time. … We could use him, another guy, another moving part ’cause we’re young in the linebacker room, and we need depth at this time.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.