The NFL suspended Browns starting linebacker Scott Fujita without pay for the first three games of the 2012 regular season because of his role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, the league announced Wednesday.
The suspension, if upheld after an anticipated appeal, would cost Fujita about $644,117 of his $3.65 million base salary. It also could present an opportunity for one of the two linebackers the team drafted last week — Nevada’s James-Michael Johnson and Texas’ Emmanuel Acho — to crack the starting lineup right away.
According to a statement released by the league, “The record established that Fujita … pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL playoffs when he played for the Saints. The pool to which he pledged paid large cash rewards for “cart-offs” and “knockouts,” plays during which an opposing player was injured.”
In March, Fujita told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King he paid teammates for making big plays like sacks and interceptions, but not for trying to intentionally injure opponents. Fujita, who played for the Saints from 2006-09 before signing with the Browns in 2010, is a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee and an outspoken advocate of player safety issues.
Fujita did not reply to an email from the Beacon Journal seeking comment.
In addition to Fujita, three other players received suspensions. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, who’s now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for eight games, and Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended for four games.
Each player was offered the opportunity to be interviewed with counsel present, but none of them agreed to be interviewed in person, according to the league. Hargrove submitted a written statement in which he did not dispute the existence of the program, the league said.
“In assessing player discipline,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, “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; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.
“No bounty program can exist without active player participation. The evidence clearly showed that the players being held accountable today willingly and enthusiastically embraced the bounty program. Players put the vast majority of the money into this program and they share responsibility for playing by the rules and protecting each other within those rules.”
Vilma’s suspension will begin immediately. He’ll be eligible to be reinstated after the Super Bowl in 2013.
Fujita, Hargrove and Smith can participate in offseason activities, including preseason games, before their suspensions take effect. Fujita did not attend the Browns’ voluntary workouts Wednesday in Berea.
“We will respect the commissioner’s decision,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said in a statement. “Scott is a valued member of the Cleveland Browns, and we look forward to his participation in our offseason program and training camp.”
The disciplined players can appeal the decision within three days, and ESPN reported all four of them will do so. Goodell is set to rule on the appeals.
“After seeing the NFL’s decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. “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 NFL announced its punishments for the Saints’ coaching staff and management in March. The team was fined $500,000 and forfeited two second-round draft picks (one this year and another next year).
The league also issued the following suspensions without pay: former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinitely), Saints coach Sean Payton (the entire 2012 season), Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis (the first eight regular-season games of 2012) and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt (the first six regular-season games of 2012).
Fujita has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve, so the Browns are accustomed to formulating plans to compensate for his absence.
When Fujita missed the final five games of the 2011 season with a broken hand, starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong moved from his usual spot to fill Fujita’s role on the strong side. Meanwhile, backup Kaluka Maiava served as the starting weakside linebacker.
The Browns could use the same strategy to replace Fujita during his three-game suspension, or they could rely on one of their rookies.
They drafted Johnson in the fourth round (120th overall), so he might have the best shot to enter the starting lineup. He started on the strong side during his first two collegiate seasons and then started in the middle during his final two. He compiled 188 tackles, including 13½ for loss, and four sacks in the past two seasons.
The Browns selected Acho in the sixth round (204th overall). He started all 13 games last season on the weak side and led Texas with 131 tackles, including 19 for loss, and three sacks. In 2011, he started seven games at middle linebacker and four on the strong side.
Browns President Mike Holmgren said Saturday that the organization didn’t pick Johnson and Acho in anticipation of punishment for Fujita.
Holmgren also spoke out against the bounties.
“The idea of targeting somebody specifically like that, and then having money put into a pot for that reason, that’s wrong,” he said. “There’s no place for that in this sport. So it bothered me, and I hope it never comes up again.”
The Browns were awarded punter Spencer Lanning off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team announced Wednesday.
The Jaguars waived Lanning and fellow punter Nick Harris on Saturday. A day earlier, they drafted punter Bryan Anger in the third round.
Lanning signed with the Jaguars a few days after the 2011 season ended. As an undrafted rookie, he spent last summer in training camp with the Chicago Bears and was cut following the team’s preseason finale against the Browns.
Lanning handled punting and placekicking duties at the University of South Carolina. During his senior season in 2010, he punted 54 times for an average of 44.1 yards with 18 downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Browns now have two punters on their roster. Reggie Hodges, the Browns’ No. 1 punter in 2010, missed all of last season after he suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in training camp. Hodges plans to make a comeback this year.
Top 100 list
Browns middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was honored as No. 96 on the NFL Network’s “The top 100: Players in 2012.” Players vote to determine who makes the list.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.