Saints players to attend hearing

by Walter Pierce

Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma plan to be present Friday when their lawyers cross examine former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Saints defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma plan to be present Friday when their lawyers are scheduled to cross examine former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Washington, D.C.

Williams is to appear at a hearing involving the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints on Friday morning, according to a schedule set by Paul Tagliabue. The former NFL commissioner has been appointed to oversee the latest round of player appeals in the matter.

"They're accusing us of things we didn't do," Smith said after Tuesday's practice. "That's part of the things that we wanted all along was to face our accusers."

Smith and Vilma will leave for Washington from Atlanta after Thursday night's game against the Falcons.

They are among four current or former Saints - along with free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita - who were issued suspensions of various lengths in the league's probe of the Saints' cash-for-hits program that ran under Williams from 2009 to 2011.

Smith, suspended four games, and Vilma, suspended for the season, have been playing while their appeals are pending.

Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo were two of the NFL's central witnesses in the probe. Cerullo's appearance is scheduled for Thursday, which conflicts with the Saints' preparations for the game that night.

"We both want to be there, but we know we can't make it. We've both got to play football. That's the way it worked out. We will definitely be there Friday," Smith said, adding that he hopes Williams shows up. "He hasn't confirmed whether he would be there or not. We'll see what happens."

The NFL has described Vilma and Smith as ring leaders of the performance pool and produced sworn statements from Williams and Cerullo saying Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009-10 NFC title game.

The hearings were slated to begin Tuesday in Washington with the questioning of NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller. Tagliabue has requested strict confidentiality while the process is ongoing, and the hearings are being conducted in private.

Tagliabue also is holding the NFL is responsible for producing Cerullo and Williams. The Saints are responsible for producing Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and Vilma early next week.

Vitt, who also coaches linebackers, already has served a six-game suspension related to the bounty probe and has said that while the Saints had an informal performance pool that rewarded players for big plays including forced fumbles, interceptions, sacks and big hits, his players never stepped on the field intending to injure an opponent.

Vitt made similar comments under oath in federal court last summer when he was called as a witness in Vilma's defamation lawsuit against current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who published the initial bounty accusations and issued the suspensions, which included a full season ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Lawsuits both by Vilma and the NFL Players Association challenging Goodell's handling of the bounty matter, including his decision to appoint Tagliabue as arbitrator for the appeals, is pending in federal court in New Orleans. It is not clear whether the judge intends to let more of the NFL's process play out before making a ruling.

Tagliabue has said he expects to make his appeal ruling shortly after concluding hearings on Dec. 4.