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NFL lifts suspension of Saints coach Sean Payton

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NFL lifts suspension of Saints coach Sean Payton

NEW YORK (AP) Sean Payton is back as coach of the New Orleans Saints.

Payton's season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program was lifted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday, nearly two weeks earlier than expected.

The decision allows Payton to attend the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday, where some of the top college players available for the NFL draft will be competing.

Payton, along with assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, and four players including Jonathan Vilma, was suspended after an investigation found the club had a performance pool offering cash rewards for key plays, including big hits. The player suspensions eventually were overturned.

``I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations,'' Payton said in a statement. ``Furthermore, I have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed.''

The suspension was scheduled to end after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, but was moved up after Payton and Goodell met on Monday.

``Coach Payton acknowledged in the meeting his responsibility for the actions of his coaching staff and players and pledged to uphold the highest standards of the NFL and ensure that his staff and players do so as well,'' Goodell said in a statement. `''Sean fully complied with all the requirements imposed on him during his suspension.

``More important, it is clear that Sean understands and accepts his responsibilities as a head coach and the vital role that coaches play in promoting player safety and setting an example for how the game should be played at all levels.''

Saints owner Tom Benson welcomed back his coach.

``We are all thankful that Sean Payton has been reinstated,'' Benson said. ``We have a lot of work to do and we are in the middle of it right now.''

Payton also needs to fill a key position on his coaching staff following the departure last week of offensive line coach and running game coordinator Aaron Kromer, now the offensive coordinator in Chicago.

Loomis and Vitt are in Mobile evaluating players. Loomis said he was caught off guard by the news of Payton's return. But he said having Payton back sooner than expected will help the Saints.

``Every day makes a difference. We've certainly missed Sean in terms of the football team and all the things that go with our business and the game. But look, I miss his friendship. We all miss his friendship. We miss him as a person. I'm excited that he's going to be back here and fired up that he's back.''

Vitt said he talked to Payton Tuesday morning and that he should join the Saints' contingent in Alabama on Wednesday.

``We just found out on the way to practice,'' Vitt said. ``Mr. B called Mickey and we're all excited. Sean went and spent the day in New York (Monday). He just got back in Dallas. I talked to him on the phone about 5 o'clock this morning. He's packing his bags so we'll expect he'll be here some time'' Wednesday.

Vitt agreed with Loomis that the timing of Payton's return is good for the team.

Payton is ``going to hit the ground running with both feet. His jaw is going to be set. He'll have a note pad full of thoughts and ideas and he's going to have to get himself caught up with the evaluation process of our team and looking at film, which he'll do. This is perfect, getting him back now, because he's going to be here for the readings of our players. He's going to be here for the readings of these college seniors. We start handing out unrestricted free agent tape on Thursday and Friday of this week.

``This is where you're building the foundation of your football team, with the evaluation process of these draft eligible juniors and seniors and the free agents that are out there.''

There remains one outstanding issue for the Saints stemming from the bounty probe: What will become of the Saints' second pick next spring. As part of the bounty punishment, Goodell fined the Saints $500,000 and took away second-round picks in 2012 and 2013. However, Goodell left open the possibility of restoring the 2013 second-rounder and instead docking the team a later-round pick if he is satisfied with the club's level of cooperation in the bounty matter.

What the Saints do know is that the 49-year-old Payton is set to return to New Orleans for the next five seasons. Earlier this month he signed a contract extension running through the 2017 season.

The coach is the last person punished in the bounty probe to return to work. Before Tuesday, Payton had not been at work since mid-April, when Goodell rejected the coach's appeal of his suspension.

Loomis was suspended for eight games, Vitt for six and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams remains suspended indefinitely

Vilma and current Saints defensive lineman Will Smith, along with former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, were given suspensions of various lengths, but never served a game. Their punishments were overturned after lengthy appeals which also coincided with exhaustive litigation in federal court.

The litigation included Vilma's defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan last week.

Payton's reinstatement is one more step for the Saints to return to normalcy, but for Vitt, said it doesn't bring closure to the bounty scandal.

``It doesn't for me. You're going to have ask Sean that question, Mickey that question, Vilma that question. It certainly doesn't for me. I can forgive. I'm not going to forget. It is what it is.''

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2018 MLB Wild Card Playoff Race: The Dodgers are back

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USA TODAY Sports

2018 MLB Wild Card Playoff Race: The Dodgers are back

The Los Angeles Dodgers have flipped the National League West, the Tampa Bay Rays are making a valiant run, and the Washington Nationals are hanging in there.

Races heading into the 2018 Major League Baseball Postseason still find a way to stay interesting after 150 games. 

The NL Central, NL West, AL and NL Wild Card battles are all going to be watched under a microscope with less than two week's worth of games remaining. Not too far away either is the NL East. 

Joining the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians are only the second team to clinch a postseason spot. They claimed the AL Central crown and will make the playoffs as the No. 3 team in the AL Bracket. No one though has clinched a position in the National League yet, and likely will not until the final week. 

Eight spots remain with the Astros and Yankees not being too far away from joining the list. At the rate the Dodgers are winning games (six of their last seven), they probably are not far off either. No matter what, Los Angeles is in a good spot after they once were at risk for missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012. 

One team that has fallen out of that conversation is the Atlanta Braves who were a game and a half from the top seed in the NL. Now they have lost four straight and leave the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals still holding out hope. 

National League Postseason Picture:

Central: Chicago Cubs 89-62

West: Los Angeles Dodgers 84-68 

East: Atlanta Braves 83-68 

National League Wild Card Standings (Games remaining against Wild Card teams): 

Milwaukee Brewers: 86-66         +3.5 (3)
Ramaining:
vs. Cincinnati (1)
@ Pittsburgh (3)
@ St. Louis (3)
vs. Detroit (3)
St. Louis Cardinals: 84-68         +1.5 (3)
Remaining:
@ Atlanta Braves (1)
vs. San Francisco (3)
vs. Milwaukee (3)
@ Chicago Cubs (3)
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Colorado Rockies: 82-69            -1.5 (10)
Remaining:
@ LA Dodgers (1)
@ Arizona (3)
vs. Philadelphia (4)
vs. Washington (3)
Philadelphia Phillies: 77-73        -6.0 (4)
Remaining:
vs. NY Mets (1)
@ Atlanta (4)
@ Colorado (4)
vs. Atlanta (3)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 78-74    -6.0 (3)
Remaining:
vs. Chicago Cubs (1)
vs. Colorado (3)
vs. LA Dodgers (3)
vs. San Diego (3)
Washington Nationals: 77-75      -7.0 (3)
Remaining:
vs. NY Mets (4)
vs. Miami (3)
@ Colorado (3)

Since the last update, the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals have not done much to add to their leads in the Wild Card. Milwaukee playing against lower teams at home in the division, only won two games in their past two series, with one being Christian Yelich's cycle. St. Louis lost three out of four to the Dodgers, but rebounded to take two against Atlanta.

Still, they hold the final two spots and have benefited with the Dodgers running through the NL West.

While the Dodgers jumped past the Rockies for the lead in the division, if Colorado can rebound it will make for an interesting finish in the National League as a whole.

However, the Rockies can't even beat the lower tier teams, shutout twice in the Bay. The Rockies will have a say in how the remainder of the season plays out, especially in the NL East, playing the Phillies and the Nats as both are grasping for straws with the Braves sinking. 

Once again the Nationals are on the way out, looking in. They remain in the update only because they have a slight chance in the division (6.5 games back), and a real favorable schedule. At the same time, write-off the Arizona Diamondbacks, they are 4-13 in their last 17.

American League:

East: Boston Red Sox: 103-48 -- clinched postseason spot

West: Houston Astros: 95-56 

Central: Cleveland Indians: 84-66 -- clinched division

American League Wild Card Standings (Games remaining against Wild Card teams):

New York Yankees: 92-58      +8.0 (4)
Remaining:
vs. Boston (2)
vs. Baltimore (3)
@ Tampa Bay (4)
@ Boston (3)
Oakland Athletics: 90-61        +5.5 (0)
Remaining:
vs. LA Angels (2)
vs. Minnesota (3)
@ Mariners (3)
@ LA Angels (3)
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Tampa Bay Rays: 84-66          -5.5 (4)
Remaining:
@ Texas (1)
vs. Toronto (4)
vs. NY Yankees (4)
vs. Toronto (3)

Just when it looked like the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics were going to be in a footrace for the top Wild Card spot, it evaporated. Losing once to the Baltimore Orioles, twice to the Tampa Bay Rays and another to the Los Angeles Angels, the Athletics faded. On the flip side New York got a huge win at home against the MLB-leading Red Sox.

The remaining schedule for each remain polar opposites as the calendar winds down. A race will still likely present itself.

Tampa Bay missed a golden chance to give themselves an outside shot. A sweep against Oakland, combined with the other results would have got them within 4.5 games. An extra-inning loss at home essentially ended their far hopes. Their record post All-Star break? 35-19.

MORE MLB NEWS: 

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Are the Redskins running the ball too much on first down?

Are the Redskins running the ball too much on first down?

After one loss, the play calling of Redskins head coach Jay Gruden is already under fire. After years of being criticized for abandoning the running game, some are saying that he is now running too often, at least on first down. 

The decision of what to do on first-and-10 is one of the basic quandaries of play calling. Running the ball is likely to get you ahead of the sticks but if the play gets stuffed you are facing second-and-8 or 9. Defenses often are geared to stop the run on first down so that affects the success rate. 

Passing on first down can be a more attractive option. Even a quick pass with a few yards after the catch can get you into second and short in a hurry. But passes are incomplete about a third of the time and that leaves the offense looking at second-and-10. The occasional sack or holding penalty can quickly kill a drive. 

This season, Gruden has leaned heavily towards taking the lower risk, lower reward route of running the ball on first down. The Redskins 39 first-down runs are the most in the NFL, one more than the Texans and considerably more than the NFL average of 27 first-down runs. (The numbers here are from Pro Football Reference and are complete through Sunday’s games.) 

Those are the raw numbers. When you break it down into first-down rush percentage, the Redskins are fifth in the league at 58.2 percent. Still, that leans heavily towards the run in a league that passes on first down (51.7%) more often than it runs (48.3%).

In looking at just 2018 we are dealing with a small sample size. The two Redskins games were very different. In their first game, they never trailed, and runs were called on 69 percent of first down plays (25 of 36). Against the Colts where they never led and ran on 45 percent of first downs (14 of 31). 

Looking at a larger set of data covering games from the start of the 2017 season through Sunday’s game, Gruden called runs on 58.5 percent of first-down plays. That was the fifth-highest percentage in the league. The league average seems to shift to more running as the year wears on as over the last full season plus two games teams ran on first down 52.4 percent of the time. 

Looking at the big picture, you might wonder why Gruden ran it so often on first down last year with such a poor (27thin NFL) rushing game. They averaged 3.16 yards per first down run. That was the worst average in the league.

We will track this occasionally as the year goes on. This year, again a small sample size, they are averaging a respectable 4.3 yards on first-down rushing attempts, 10th in the NFL. Let’s see if the strategy shifts, if the defense adjusts and keys to stop the run on first down, and/or if they are having trouble consistently moving the ball. 

Redskins analysis

-Running game struggles: No immediate answers
-Shuffling the receivers: Redskins acquire Floyd after signing Perriman

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler