As I watched the best-of-the-best in the NFL battle it out over the weekend, I was still that Saints fan that wondered "what if?" "What if" there was no alleged 'Bountygate' distraction. "What if" our head coach Sean Payton was never suspended? "What if" Roger Goodell manned up and apologized for something that he totally jumped the shark on?

The NFC teams that are left in the hunt for a trip to the Super Bowl are the San Francisco 49ers, and the Atlanta Falcons. Even with the season of terrible circumstances the Saints were forced to deal with, it isn't outlandish to say that New Orleans didn't have a pretty good shot at making a Super Bowl appearance in their own city.

But, it didn't happen, and nothing will change that fact. What the New Orleans Saints and it's fan base could (and should) receive though, is an apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Be it simple, or complex - he should apologize for punishing coaches, players, a franchise, and it's fanbase for an alleged 'Pay for Injury' program that was never proved to exist. To this day there is still no hard evidence that justified Goodell's decisions, and the real facts that have emerged ironically point to a rush in judgement against the New Orleans Saints.

Bill Randall of the Washington Times decided to write up a template suggesting how Goodell should apologize to the Saints and their fan base, and even openly invited the commissioner to copy it word for word if he so wished to do so.

I must say, it's pretty damn spot on.

From: The Office of the Commissioner, the National Football League 

To: The New Orleans Saints Franchise and Fan Base

It is time to clear the air. As NFL Commissioner, I feel compelled to set the record straight and give a no-nonsense response to you and all who have been affected by my past actions.  While it is true that I have an obligation to maintain good public relations and positive image for the National Football League, I must admit that this so-called “BountyGate” case was not handled properly, and it’s time for me to repair bridges that I burned.

First, and foremost, I apologize to the City of New Orleans. With the 2013 Super Bowl XLVII, no other city will have hosted more championships than the Crescent City. In fact, before the era of the enclosed stadium, New Orleans hosted three of the first five Super Bowls (1968, 1969 & 1971). Yet, because my rush to get to the bottom of the BountyGate allegations I failed to assume innocence until guilt was proved, the image of your great city, franchise and fan base have suffered damage that was unnecessary. We should be looking ahead at a New Orleans that has helped make the Super Bowl the single-most watched event in television history. Instead, the odor of BountyGate lingers. You certainly deserve better than that.

I recently acknowledged the retirement of a great NFL linebacker, Ray Lewis. He is retiring at the top of his game, and leaving on his own terms. Ray’s story of overcoming adversity has been an inspiration for many.  But while we tip our hats to Ray Lewis, we forgotten that another NFL defensive player overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to encourage and inspire others: Anthony Hargrove.

Prior to joining the Saints, Hargrove had personal problems that would have taken many on a permanent spiral downward. He fought through them to achieve great things. His turnaround was so remarkable that his Saints teammates chose him to receive the “Ed Block Courage Award.”

Because I allowed a rush to judgment to play out in the court of public opinion, Hargrove is now associated with a scandal that for all practical purposes NEVER WAS. This was unfair to him. Anthony Hargrove continues to epitomize quality play and sportsmanship in the NFL. It is my hope that another NFL team will give him an opportunity once again to showcase his skills on the defensive line. 

Scott Fujita and Will Smith were fully exonerated as well. But how do they recover from what was done? I may not have the full answer right now, but as Commissioner I am determined to work more closely and more cooperatively with the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) to do the right thing by them and all players suspected of wrongdoing in the future.

Jonathan Vilma’s situation is hard for me to address. That an active NFL player would take the NFL and me to court is uncomfortable and embarrassing. It would have been better if I had exercised impartial and fair judgment in dealing with the allegations he faced. But I did not. The truth, as painful as it is to admit, is that I alone bear the blame for BountyGate spinning out of control. I allowed flawed testimony, hearsay and part truths to be leaked to the public.

You can take one of two paths in a leadership position: 1) Lead by example, or 2) be guided by political correctness and popular opinion. While I understand the grave importance of keeping players’ safety as a top priority, I allowed BountyGate to take on a life of its own instead of insisting that a fair and impartial investigative process be strictly followed. In the end, regardless of what judgment is rendered in the judicial process, I want to rebuild the trust and confidence between my office, the NFLPA, and all 32 NFL franchises, as well as with the collective NFL fan base worldwide. This is easier said than done, but it will be priority-one once the dust has settled from the Vilma case.

Sports commentator Stephen A. Smith took the step of apologizing to Jonathan Vilma before a national audience on ESPN. My apology should have preceded his. 

General Manager Mickey Loomis, Head Coach Sean Payton, and Assistant Coach Joe Vitt deserve my apology as well. The punishments meted out by my office were harsh and overreaching. Though I believe that we all have an obligation to ensure player safety and quality sportsmanship at all times, the suspensions you received were unwarranted.

It is evident that the Saints had a “Pay for Performance” program. This is a far cry from a “Pay to Injure” program. In fact, all evidence points to criteria that your team would pay no incentives to players who injured an opposing player. Your program, evidently, was one that caused your players to tackle correctly and enhance the quality of play on defense. In examination of stats from the years your Play for Performance program was in place, the Saints had the second lowest incidence of injuries to opposing players; of the 32 NFL teams, only one other team caused fewer injuries to its opponents than the Saints. That is not only remarkable; it is commendable.

I realize that the NFL fan base does not want us to water-down the hitting and tackling to the point of having a glorified flag football league. As NFL Commissioner, I see thousands of letters each year from fans who are rapidly losing interest in the Pro Bowl because they feel it is not a fair representation of the NFL as a contact sport. I don’t want to open players to concussions and needless injury, but we must not allow the NFL to become a risk-free sport if we want to preserve its proud tradition and legacy as the ultimate contact sport.

I am in a quandary as to how to restore the Saints’ top draft pick forfeited in 2012. We will explore several options, but maybe a short-term remedy would be to give the Saints two extra supplemental picks over the next 3 years.

As NFL Commissioner, I realize that I am overseer of a great enterprise that is owned by the fan base, and proud owners and investors across the country. BountyGate is a dark chapter indeed, but I believe it is possible to move forward despite my misguided actions of the past. With your help, and the cooperation of all those associated with this great American game, our brightest days still lie ahead.

Thank you.

Roger S. Goodell, Commissioner, National Football League

Your move Goodell. Oh, and good luck in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. I'm sure the locals will be thrilled to have you.