The NFL has offered to reduce New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma's year-long suspension to eight games as part of ongoing settlement talks involving the league, the NFL Players Association and legal representatives for the four players who were suspended for their alleged participation in the team's bounty program from 2009-2011, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
The league's offer was made late last week but it is conditional upon Vilma dropping a civil lawsuit charging commissioner Roger Goodell with defamation of character, sources said. Vilma has expressed his strong feelings about his tainted reputation.
The talks could also lead to reductions in the suspensions of the other three players -- Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), Packers defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight games), and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games).
The NFL, in a statement released Monday morning, denied that Vilma was offered a settlement deal.
"Today's report about a settlement offer by the league to Jonathan Vilma is completely inaccurate. No such settlement offer has been made. We will continue to respect the court proceedings on this matter and have no further comment at this time," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Peter Ginsberg, Vilma's attorney, filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Louisiana on Monday on behalf of his client, seeking "judicial attention" to comments Goodell recently made.
The filing claims "the NFL breached its CBA obligation to produce all evidence to be considered by the arbitrator in a 'conduct detrimental' proceeding; Goodell acted in an impermissibly biased manner; and, Goodell created and permitted a process tolerated neither by the CBA nor by federal law."
According to the Louisiana filing, Goodell "has revised the allegation" against the Saints to engaging in a program that rewarded players for clean plays "that did not involve designated specific opposing players for injury."
Settlement talks are expected to continue Monday and sources say that Friday's next scheduled appearance before U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan could serve as a soft deadline to reach a settlement. The two sides filed more arguments in the Louisiana court this past Friday in advance of this week's hearing.
The original hearing was conducted on July 26th as Judge Berrigan was deciding on whether to grant a temporary restraining order on behalf of the four players who were suspended by Goodell.
Judge Berrigan expressed concerns about Goodell's actions during the first hearing in which seven members of the Saints testified that they never witnessed Vilma offering $10,000 to any teammate who injured opposing quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009-2010 playoffs. Those who testified also denied there was a pay-to-injure bounty program, including Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt, who will serve his own six-game suspension to open the season.
While sources said league attorneys have urged Goodell to offer reductions in the suspensions as a settlement, a league official reiterated Goodell's position that if the players had participated fully in the appeals process, the commissioner may have reduced the penalties as he has with other players who have been disciplined in other cases. The league official also noted that the current legal proceeding began with a settlement conference.
Saints owner Tom Benson has privately expressed his displeasure with Goodell on the severity of the sanctions that hit the franchise, including a year-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton and an eight-game suspension of general manager Mickey Loomis, according to sources.
Payton and Loomis are not part of the legal proceedings that are currently active in federal court. A source speculated that if the federal judge rules in favor of the players then Benson could push for Goodell to consider a reduction in Payton's suspension. A team source downplayed that scenario.
The Saints opened their preseason slate with a 17-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night.
When asked his thoughts about the possibility of a reduced suspension for Vilma, New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said it'd be "huge" for both the veteran linebacker and the rest of the league's players.
"I think it would be a huge victory especially for Jon and for the NFL -- the players to finally kind of show a little bit of power."
Offensive tackle Zach Strief said it's been tough to watch Vilma go through the process.
"The hardest thing going through this process is seeing a guy, you know what kind of person he is, kinda be dragged through the mud like that," Strief said.
Veteran safety Roman Harper added that Vilma's "fighting for who he is, it's all about his family name and all the great things that he's done on and off the field and I back him 100 percent and I know the truth and we all know that he's doing what he needs to do."
Ed Werder is a reporter for ESPN. Adam Schefter is ESPN's NFL Insider. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.