Goodell facing groundbreaking NFL rulings

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

In the real world, the legal consequences for committing a crime are set in black and white. In the NFL, the potential punishment has more gray than the gibberish being spouted from the Brett Favre camp about his NFL future. How long should a player be banned for killing someone in a DUI accident? How about for bankrolling a dog-fighting ring or a felony arrest for illegal weapons possession — especially when both incidents already have drawn NFL suspensions? We'll soon find out.
Over the next few months, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faces his toughest rulings since instituting the league's personal conduct policy in April 2007. He will decide the fate of three players — Cleveland wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, ex-Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and ex-Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress — whose off-field transgressions have damaged the league's image. Barring further legal trouble, the trio should eventually get reinstated. But only one person knows when: Judge Roger. By indefinitely suspending Stallworth last week, Goodell levied the stiff punishment that wasn't meted by the Miami-Dade court system. Stallworth's NFL exile will last longer than the 30-day jail sentence he was given as part of a plea deal for fatally striking a pedestrian in March. Based on past precedent, Stallworth should only have to miss eight games before returning to the field. That was the penalty assessed by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue against St. Louis defensive end Leonard Little in 1999 following a similar DUI manslaughter incident. However, Goodell isn't bound by Tagliabue's ruling. Judge Roger dishes reprimands at his own discretion. There are no rules that state a specific conduct violation brings a specific sentence. When players contest suspensions, Judge Roger hears the appeal. Upon Stallworth's reinstatement, there will be immediate parallels drawn to Vick's punishment because of the fact Vick killed dogs rather than a person. The two cases, though, can't be directly equated. Vick directly lied to Goodell about his involvement in dog fighting while Stallworth hasn't tried to dodge accountability for his misdeed. Vick's wrongdoing included illegal gambling — a major NFL no-no even when not betting on football games — and a positive marijuana test. Plus, Vick already was punished well before he began serving a 23-month prison sentence. Vick was barred for all of the 2007 campaign even though his legal fate wasn't decided until that December. After then spending almost two years in prison, when is enough enough? According to Goodell, Vick must now show genuine contrition for his actions and that he is a changed man from this experience. There can't be more subjective criteria than that. The NFL future is just as murky for Burress, whose trial on a felony gun possession charge in New York may not start until after the 2009 season. After he suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a New York City night club, the Giants suspended Burress for their final five games last season. The official reason given was "conduct detrimental to the team for multiple and repeated violations of club rules." The NFL has refused to say whether Burress will receive further sanctions, leaving the unsigned wideout in limbo with interested teams. For those who claim Burress already has paid his dues, a second suspension would send the message that double-jeopardy doesn't matter in Judge Roger's chambers. It wouldn't be surprising for the NFL Players Association to push for a different justice system when negotiating a new labor pact. Nobody can question Goodell's heart is in the right place by wanting to "protect the shield." He made sound judgments on previous suspensions involving players like Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson. But there are some who believe the "In Roger We Trust" motto should only go so far. The NFLPA should consider demanding more specific guidelines regarding sentences for off-field transgressions and a different appeals process to guarantee less arbitrary rulings for its constituents — even those who may deserve more than a slap on the wrist. Otherwise, a courtroom where Goodell has appointed himself as judge, juror and jailer will remain indefinitely in session.

Cause and Effect

Subject: The inaugural United Football League draft The cause: To stock rosters for the upcoming fall season The effect: Amid no fanfare, the UFL quietly allocated 24 players to each of its four teams. The biggest names were NFL castoffs like safety Adam Archuleta, guard Zach Pillar and running back Femi Ayanbadejo. But it's the quarterbacks who will be assigned to teams next month that shall provide the UFL's biggest star power. According to media reports, ex-Buffalo starter J.P. Losman will sign with the Las Vegas franchise being coached by Jim Fassel. NFL journeymen Tim Rattay and Quinn Gray also are likely UFL-bound. But the biggest coup for the league would be getting Vick under contract if he remains suspended by the NFL or finds no interest from teams wary of his past. Vick would draw television ratings and much-needed media attention to a league that sorely needs it. The UFL also would have no problem with Vick's background. Defensive end Marquies Gunn — who was arrested in February for allegedly trying to sell crack cocaine to an undercover Alabama police officer — was drafted by the UFL's San Francisco franchise.

The Buzz

San Francisco hasn't had a 1,000-yard wide receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003, but the 49ers are now stocked at the position. Besides the offseason acquisitions of free agent Brandon Jones (Tennessee) and first-round pick Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan appears ready for a breakout season after a strong finish to his rookie campaign in 2008. Steady veterans Isaac Bruce and Arnaz Battle are returning, plus tight end Vernon Davis is expected to play a larger role in the team's passing game. The big question now is whether the 49ers will field a quarterback who can effectively distribute the football. Shaun Hill is the projected starter, but Alex Smith will have a chance to knock him off in training camp ... Few teams have a shakier backup quarterback situation than Jacksonville following last week's release of Cleo Lemon. David Garrard's top understudy is now Todd Bouman, a 36-year-old journeyman who hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2005. The Lemon release makes Jacksonville's decision not to select a quarterback for grooming in this year's draft even more puzzling.

Week in Review

  • Big winner: Oakland for signing ex-Dallas linebacker/defensive end Greg Ellis. With 20.5 sacks the past two seasons, Ellis augments a defense that hasn't fielded a player with double-digit sacks since Derrick Burgess notched 11 in 2006. He will be converting from outside linebacker to defensive end — a position he once played with the Cowboys — in Oakland's 4-3 scheme.
  • Big losers: The Kansas City Chiefs. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kansas City's roster lost a combined 340 pounds in an offseason workout program instituted by new head coach Todd Haley. Haley even got in the spirit himself by dropping 25 pounds. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, it appears that weight transferred to Kansas City's top receiving threat. Haley recently said wideout Dwayne Bowe was 20-25 pounds heavier than the team wanted.
  • Under-the-radar move: Washington coach Jim Zorn naming Chris Horton as his team's starting strong safety entering training camp. The Redskins got a draft-day steal in 2008 when picking Horton in the seventh round. He started 10 games last season and was an upgrade to incumbent Reed Doughty, who will now serve as a top backup and special-teams contributor. Horton said Zorn's vote of confidence was much appreciated, but admits he still has big shoes to fill on a team that featured the late Sean Taylor.
  • Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Redskins, Jaguars, Michael Vick, Greg Ellis, Isaac Bruce, Leonard Little, Todd Bouman, Derrick Burgess, Plaxico Burress, Terrell Owens, Donte' Stallworth, David Garrard, Shaun Hill, Arnaz Battle, Tank Johnson, J.P. Losman, Cleo Lemon, Alex Smith, Chris Henry, Brandon Jones, Vernon Davis, Reed Doughty, Dwayne Bowe, Chris Horton, Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree

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