Message sent: Bounties are history

Players won't like it. In fact, many across the league don't, guys like Arizona's Darnell Dockett and Pittsburgh's James Harrison, who took to Twitter after the NFL announced its decision to suspend four players in the New Orleans Saints bounty case, including Jonathan Vilma for the season.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had no choice. He dropped the hammer on the most important men atop the Saints' organization -- head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and assistant head coach Joe Vitt. He had to do the same thing to the leadership of the Saints' defense.

• Vilma, the middle linebacker and defensive leader of the New Orleans defense: out for the year.

• Former New Orleans defensive end Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay: out for the first eight games of 2012.

• Saints defensive end Will Smith: out for four games.

• Former Saints linebacker and leader Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland: out for three games.

The only thing particularly surprising about the long-awaited suspensions is that Goodell did not issue more. In its initial release on the findings of the New Orleans bounty system investigation, the league said that between 22 and 27 players were involved. Yet Goodell suspended only players who "participated at a different and more significant level," according to the NFL's release.

Goodell could have crippled the Saints. He could have put them at an even greater competitive disadvantage than they already are with Payton sidelined for the season. He could have been harsher, but instead, Goodell acted with at least a little restraint.

Yes, he hammered Vilma, who will have to lose a year's salary, a valuable thing in a sport where careers are short. But Goodell could have done more, even though he has done enough.

"In assessing player discipline," 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."

According to the league -- and the NFL Players Association disagrees -- Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita fit one or more of those criteria.

As reflected in the length of his suspension, Vilma was the most egregious offender, according to the league. He helped Williams establish and fund the bounty program and offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked out Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner in a 2009 NFC divisional playoff game or Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre a week later in the NFC title game.

According to the league, Hargrove admitted to participating in the program, but did so only after obstructing the league's 2010 investigation. According to the league, Smith helped Williams establish and fund the bounty program and pledged "significant sums" for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" of opposing players. According to the league, Fujita pledged money for a pool that would reward cart-offs and knockouts during the 2009 playoffs.

"It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced," Goodell said. "Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field."

Goodell's mandate is player safety, and his ruling against the Saints' management and current and former players in this case is an effort to ensure that bounties and player-funded pools never happen again. Players might not like it. They might see it as the wussification of football. But this is the reality of the NFL in 2012.

Players can no longer motivate themselves with pools for play. It has happened forever, in locker rooms across the league. Guys contributed walk-around money for big plays, big hits, sacks and interceptions.

The Saints took it too far, targeting specific players and offering financial rewards for knocking opposing players out of games.

In a league that is extremely concerned with player safety and facing numerous lawsuits, the bounty practice had to stop. Guys in their 20s might not have the perspective to understand that -- and many took to Twitter to voice their displeasure -- but that is the way of the NFL now. It doesn't mean the NFL will be just a slightly rougher version of flag football. It just means that egregious, unnecessary behavior won't be tolerated.

Goodell sent the message. The players will have to adapt. As it has since its inception, the game will continue to evolve. And it will continue to grow.

Like Payton, Vilma must pay the biggest price. Like Payton, fair or not, Vilma is a face of this issue. He is an example. Don't do this, don't pay for big hits, or else you, too, could lose a year of your NFL career.

It is a powerful deterrent. Goodell wanted to send a message. He wanted to rid the sport of this practice. Now with these player suspensions, Goodell has done just that.