Remember the offseason that just ended about a month ago, and that bounty thing in which Saints players allegedly paid each other money to do a thing that resulted in potential injuries to opposing players, most notably Brett Favre? Yeah, that’s still a thing, and today a three-member appeals panel issued their ruling on the appeal launched by the four players in question (Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita, and Anthony Hargrove).

That’s when something shocking and unexpected happened. The panel ruled in favor of the players, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That means all of the suspensions are voided, and the players have been freed.

Vilma succinctly summarized the feelings of the group after their victory over sheriff Roger Goodell.

He then proceeded to plot his revenge on his evil twin brother that he became separated from in the womb after a spirited sperm laser battle.

I’ll try to make sure this doesn’t spiral into the usual legal vomit mess that every bountygate-related post becomes, but no guarantees. To help in that effort, let’s skip along through the rationale behind this decision in point form, um, form:

  • Goodell was able to hand out the significant suspensions to the four players in question (a full season to Vilma, eight games for Hargrove, four to Smith, and three to Fujita) because he ruled that contributing to or participating in a bounty system is behavioral conduct which is detrimental to the league/team.
  • The players and the players’ association argued that a bounty program is instead a salary cap issue since theoretically more money is illegally flowing into a team and to the players. Goodell doesn’t have jurisdiction over salary cap violations, and instead an independent arbitrator makes that ruling.
  • The opinion of the appeal panel fell in the middle. As legal analyst Gabe Feldman notes, the panel determined the conduct of the players was both a salary cap violation in the form of payment for performance (i.e. money rewarded for a sack), and it was also partly conduct with the intent to injure, which is the payment for injury that Goodell had alleged and was the basis for his strong punishments.
  • Unfortunately for Goodell, he can only punish a player for the latter violation and a payment to injure, so in the eyes of the panel, that erases the four suspensions entirely.
  • Goodell is permitted to re-suspend the players if he can produce sufficient evidence of a pay-to-injure system.

Just as the original bountygate suspensions were, this is an unprecedented and historical ruling, and it presents a very unique set of circumstances. But, before Saints and Browns fans begin their successive kart wheels, you should be aware that a punishment of some kind is still forthcoming, just maybe not as severe. The effect of this ruling is that the panel has handed the case back to Goodell, and has essentially told him to quickly issue more fitting penalties.

But since it’s Friday afternoon and less than 48 hours away from the first Sunday of the 2012 season, the implications for this weekend are pretty simple. They’re all eligible to play, although Hargrove needs to find a team first, and Vilma is still rehabbing a knee injury and won’t be available to the Saints.

It’s sounding like another punishment may come down quickly (indeed, the panel has asked for an expedited decision from Goodell), but not before Sunday, according to Schefter. That means suddenly, the Browns’ defensive depth chart has been fortified, and the Packers may be regretting their decision to release Hargrove, as he could become a very attractive free agent. Most importantly, the Saints get Smith — their most potent pass rusher — back just days before a date with Robert Griffin III.

Oh, and Goodell’s case against the Saints with his woefully feeble evidence has been given yet another paralyzing gut punch.