While Vilma maintains his innocence, the sharks are circling in Saints’ bounty scandal

Very soon after New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma did an interview with Ian Rapoport of NFL.com to forward the notion that he's innocent of all charges in the bounty scandal that has him suspended for the 2012 season and suing Roger Goodell as a result, Yahoo! Sports' own Jason Cole came through with a real bombshell. On Friday afternoon, Cole reported the existence of a ledger allegedly kept by the Saints' coaching staff to keep track of the bounties paid under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The NFL has a copy of a "ledger" that was kept detailing weekly earnings for players in the New Orleans Saints bounty system, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation.

The ledger, which shows both money earned for "cart-offs" and "whacks" and deducted for "mental errors," also points to the fact that players were told on a week-by-week basis of their performance.

According to sources, the NFL showed portions of the ledger during meetings with some of those who have been investigated in the scandal.

"The players clearly knew what was going each week with the payments," a source told Yahoo! Sports. In fact, multiple sources admitted that Saints defensive players would regularly encourage teammates to put money earned from the bounty system back into the pool. It's unclear if that was to increase the potential winnings or eventually use the money for some other purpose.

Regardless of whether the money was paid out or not, the mere implication of a cash payment for such plays is considered a violation of league rules.

If true, the ledger puts the Saints in violation of salary cap rules as well as on the wrong side of the "pay-for-injury" equation. Proof of such a system would cement the suspensions laid down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but as Vilma, who is heavily implicated in the scandal, says that this is more about due process, and the fact that those accused have never seen the evidence

"What I've said before, there was no bounty program in place," Vilma told Rapoport. "I never paid anybody, intended to pay anybody — that's the truth. Never sought out to injure people. That's the truth. That's really about it. I can't really go into detail ... "We asked for evidence, and [Goodell] wouldn't give it to us ... I said, 'OK. How can I defend myself if I don't know what I'm defending against?'"

Vilma's answer was to file a lawsuit against Goodell, which he did on May 17. The suit claims that "Goodell's Statements forever falsely taint and permanently damage Vilma, in the eyes of NFL Clubs, media, fans and sponsors, as a player who brazenly disregards NFL rules and  intentionally attempts to injure his opponents."

In an interview with Shutdown Corner on May 4, NFLPA lead outside counsel Richard Smith told us that the NFL has never revealed any specific evidence -- no ledger, no witnesses, no nothing.

"All the PA ever physically received from the NFL were the report and the coaches' suspension decision [attached as Exhibits A and B] to the Burbank grievance, and the suspension letters to the four players, attached as Exhibits C-F to the Burbank grievance," Smith said. "This the sum total of the 'facts' that have been provided by the NFL.  The league exhibited the PowerPoint in a meeting in March 2012, but refused to make a copy available.  They refused to make anything else available, even under an agreement of confidentiality.  The PA's multiple requests to the NFL  for documents and for the ability to interview witnesses have all been denied.  The letters that were sent asking coaches to give interviews  to the PA have all gone unanswered."

George Atallah of the NFLPA responded to Cole's report with a similar thought process -- even with new and possibly damning evidence on the hoof, the claim is that NFL has lapsed in judgment by refusing to be upfront with what it has against the Saints.

"I guess it either qualifies as evidence, which means fair due process was violated because [the] players didn't get to see it before they were punished or it is not hard evidence because they didn't get to see it and cross examine the validity of that piece of evidence," Atallah wrote.

Goodell has asked for , and received, a 21-day delay for his response to Vilma's lawsuit. He must respond by July 5, and at some point soon after, the discovery process will begin. That may be the real point of the lawsuit -- to force the NFL to open its books and show, once and for all, what it has on Vilma, his present and former teammates, his coaches, and members of the Saints' front office.

It seems like a risky gambit for Vilma, but what does he have to lose?

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