Tagliabue said the players' conduct was detrimental to the league and that fines could be justified. But the former commissioner said Tuesday that "this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
In October, Tagliabue was appointed by current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the appeals of the suspended players.
An NFL investigation found the Saints offered cash bonuses for big hits designed to hurt and/or remove opponents from games. Targeted opponents included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma initially had been suspended the whole season, while Saints defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove received shorter suspensions.
The NFL said in a statement, "We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. This matter has now been reviewed by Commissioner Goodell, two CBA grievance arbitrators, the CBA Appeals Panel, and Mr. Tagliabue as Commissioner Goodell's designated appeals officer. The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.