Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was initially suspended an entire season before successfully fighting to have his ban in the NFL's bounty probe overturned, offered some advice to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as he confronts a similar challenge.
"I'd tell Brady to fight the emotion of defending himself publicly, lawyer up and begin to devise a gameplan to beat the NFL through the [court] system," Vilma wrote in a text message.
Vilma hired his own lawyer -- Peter Ginsberg -- exhausted the league's system of appeals and took the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to federal court. That provided the leverage necessary for Goodell to appoint former commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a neutral arbitrator.
Tagliabue threw out "all discipline" Goodell had imposed on Vilma and defensive end Will Smith for taking part in a Saints program that rewarded injurious hits. Tagliabue did the same for two players who by then were no longer with the club, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Vilma, suspended by Goodell for the entire season, and Smith, suspended four games, played while their appeals were pending. Fujita, who was facing a one-game suspension, was on injured reserve. Hargrove's suspension initially stood at eight games but was reduced to seven with credit for his first five games missed as a free agent, essentially reducing the ban he'd been facing to two games.
Vilma doubts the protocols required by the collective bargaining agreement would allow Brady to prevail in his expected appeal to the league for his role in the deflating of footballs. Brady has until 5 p.m. Thursday to file his appeal. A source said he has involved the NFL Players Association for the first time and the union will assume the lead in defending Brady.
The Saints and Patriots were punished not only for violations of league rules but also for failing to cooperate with the NFL investigations into wrongdoing and concealing the illegal activity.
But while Goodell led the investigation into the Saints' scandal and determined punishment, the league hired Ted Wells to investigate the Patriots and Brady, and Goodell deferred to league executive Troy Vincent to determine the punishment. Vilma believes those differences will increase the challenge for Brady, whose appeal will be heard by Goodell or his designee, likely Harold Henderson.
"We based our argument off of Goodell being the face of the BountyGate witchhunt," Vilma said in the text message. "He hasn't done that this time around. I don't know how he accuses Goodell of being too bias to be [the] arbitrator. I was able to prove he was biased and then let all the facts start coming out in a neutral setting."
Vilma said it was difficult to compartmentalize preparing for a game each week while simultaneously being fully involved in challenging the league's discipline. It likely would be even harder for a quarterback like Brady, considering his responsibilities.
"Just wears on you because no matter what you do on the field, the only questions he'll receive are about Deflategate," Vilma said.
One other interesting parallel: Agent Don Yee, who represents Brady, also represented Saints coach Sean Payton. He remains the only head coach in NFL history to be suspended, missing an entire season.