Should Goodell cut bounty penalties?

The players were eloquent. They were thoughtful. And they were rather convincing.

But just because Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove passionately defended themselves against bounty charges doesn't mean that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will lift their suspensions or that of Will Smith. This judge-jury-executioner thing doesn't work that way.

Goodell didn't rescind suspensions of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton (a year), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) or assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games). Vitt has vehemently denied that he contributed to a bounty pool and offered this week to take a lie detector test.

Even though he is leaving the players' appeals open through the end of Friday, there is little reason to think Goodell will suddenly back off his decision to suspend Vilma (full season), Hargrove (eight games), Smith (four games) and Fujita (three games). He probably should. In light of the evidence the league has made public so far, the suspensions seem more than a little harsh.

Maybe the league has more specifically on the players than it has released. It must, given the impact on those players' careers and reputations. But what the players were shown during their appeals hearings wasn't all that convincing. There wasn't a so-called smoking gun. There was a lot of evidence that the Saints had a pool for performance on the field. There was some evidence, taken from the Saints' own computer system, that money was pledged for so-called bounties. And there was a lot of evidence of the coaches' hubris.

But from what was released earlier this week, there wasn't overwhelmingly damning evidence against the players.

Goodell's goal is to eradicate bounty systems. One of Goodell's biggest initiatives has been player safety. Eliminating bounties falls under that initiative.

Protect players. Protect the game.

Throwing a Super Bowl-winning coach out of the league for a year and levying significant punishments against prominent, respected, veteran players showed Goodell is serious. He made sure bounties would never happen again. He probably eliminated the longstanding tradition of pay-for-performance bonuses from player-funded pools.

Goodell made examples out of Vilma and Fujita in part because they were leaders of the defense that Goodell says put bounties out on Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Hasselbeck, among others.

When he announced the player punishments, Goodell said in a statement that he focused on players who fell into one or more of the following categories: players who were in leadership positions, who contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program and/or specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player, who demonstrated a clear intent to participate in the program, who sought rewards for injuring opposing players, and/or who obstructed the 2010 investigation.

Vilma and Fujita were undoubtedly leaders of the defense. The evidence the NFL made public Monday included an anonymous, handwritten transcription that has Vilma pledging $10,000 in the quarterback pool for the 2010 NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, but nothing else in the evidence that was released concretely links Vilma to bounties. Nor was anything released linking Fujita directly to bounties.

The Hargrove case is interesting because the league has already twisted something he said. In a signed declaration Hargrove gave the league, he said that his coaches instructed him to deny the existence of a bounty program when interviewed by a league investigator. The league said that Hargrove, in the declaration, admitted there was a bounty program, but nowhere in the declaration does Hargrove admit that.

Another bit of so-called evidence against Hargrove is an NFL Films video of the Vikings game. On the sideline after a particularly vicious hit on Favre delivered by Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele, the league says Hargrove said to McCray: "Bobby, give me my money."

The tape shows Hargrove say McCray's first name, but then Hargrove's face is obscured by a teammate. Hargrove insisted on Wednesday that he didn't say, "Give me my money" and accused the league of a "sophisticated mugging."

Hargrove admits he misled an NFL investigator early on but says he did so only because his coaches told him to. That's not the best defense, but an obscured tape and a twisted declaration aren't the best evidence, either.

I tend to believe the league has more. Maybe we will see it. Probably we will not. But to cripple a franchise and mess with players' careers, which are short anyway, Goodell has to have more than thin evidence that tangentially connects the players. Too much is at stake.

At some point Goodell, using the ultimate authority that the players granted him in the last collective bargaining agreement, will say, "Enough." He will demand people believe him, and if they don't, too bad.

That's the benefit of being judge, jury and executioner. The players are challenging that authority, and they had a couple of successes this week. They turned the conversation in their favor, forcing the league to counterattack. But ultimately they are fighting a battle they can't win because of the power they granted Goodell in the first place. Knowing what we know now, an argument can be made that Goodell should reduce the player penalties. But he won't, and he doesn't have to.