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Richie Incognito's Bills signing has broad implications for NFL

It has been almost exactly a year since Ted Wells released his devastating report on the sordid behavior inside the Miami Dolphins' locker room, of the players preying on the weakest of their own, of directing homophobic remarks and resorting to inappropriate touching of another player, of slinging racial slurs at an assistant trainer.

So now we have an idea of how long it takes for necessity to overcome distaste in the NFL. That might be an important statistic to keep in mind after the season the league just had, and considering the offseason movement to come.

Veteran guard Richie Incognito was called the main instigator of the Dolphins' "Mean Girls"-like locker room, and he spent 2014 (and the second half of the 2013 season) in football purgatory, in the off-the-radar netherworld that falls between doing penance and waiting for the storm to pass. It passed over the weekend, when the Buffalo Bills announced they had reached an agreement in principle with Incognito on a one-year contract.

Incognito, regarded by opponentsas among the dirtiest players in the league but also well-liked by many of his former teammates, hasn't been heard from much since his perniciousness was laid bare last February. Even if he says he has changed, it will be hard to believe him -- he has, alas, said that before -- until he gets through a season without controversy enveloping him. His career, such as it is, rests on his ability to harness what has appeared to be the longtime essence of his leadership style. It is immature and intimidating, but it has also proven, over the years, to be effective. He is the tough-as-nails guard the Bills' offensive line desperately needs, the walking definition of the "bully" that Rex Ryan vowed to build when he became Buffalo's head coach.

But as much of a risk as returning to the workplace is for Incognito, whose career surely will be over if he blows this opportunity, it is a greater one for Ryan and for the NFL in general.

Ryan revels in his players' coach persona, and in encouraging players to speak their minds. But former New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson has said that Ryan facilitated the environment that led to locker-room dissension among the Jets, which resulted in Santonio Holmes openly criticizing the offense during the 2011 season and ultimately being benched for the season finale, with a playoff spot on the line. Holmes was selfish and splintered the locker room. Incognito did a lot worse. The Bills can only hope Ryan will apply a firmer hand than he did in managing the Jets.

"I personally met with Richie, along with (general manager) Doug Whaley, Rex Ryan and Kim (Pegula), regarding an opportunity to earn a spot on the Buffalo Bills' roster," Bills owner Terry Pegula said in a statement announcing the signing Monday. "Obviously, we all discussed Richie's past experience in the NCAA and NFL. We are convinced that Richie is prepared to move forward and has and will continue to take the necessary steps to improve himself as a person and a teammate. Following discussion with the rest of the coaching staff, we as an organization will provide him with the opportunity to do so."

The Pegulas are trusting that Ryan can handle Incognito, and they had better be right, because Ryan's success, or lack thereof, is going to have broader implications for the NFL. This is the first test case of what is going to be a tiptoeing-through-hot-coals kind of offseason for teams that must weigh the potential fallout from signing players with résumés that include regrettable and repugnant behavior.

The litmus tests will come in bulk.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy's trial by jury on misdemeanor domestic violence charges was scheduled to begin Monday, but prosecutors dismissed the charges, saying Hardy's accuser -- with whom he'd reached an agreement on a settlement to a civil suit -- couldn't be found. (A judge had earlier found him guilty of the charges, but under North Carolina law, Hardy was allowed to seek a trial by jury on appeal.) He is likely to still face league discipline under the personal conduct policy; regarding Hardy's placement on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List, NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello told The Associated Press in an email on Monday that "his status remains unchanged until we fully review the matter."

Then will come the tricky part. Before landing on the list for all but two games last season (he played Week 1 and was not active for Week 2), Hardy had emerged as one of the league's best pass rushers. But the details of Hardy's entanglement are particularly troubling -- he had been accused of threatening to kill his then-girlfriend and of trying to strangle her -- and over the weekend, The Charlotte Observer reported that the Carolina Panthers were likely finished with Hardy, who is set to become a free agent in March. In that case, he would be a very inviting prospect for a team in need of pass-rushing help.

If Hardy is on the open market, he would join Ray Rice, the running back whose videotaped punch sent the NFL into a maelstrom from which it has still not emerged. Adrian Peterson, who remains under contract with the Minnesota Vikings, could also return if he is reinstated in the spring after causing injury to his son while disciplining him by using a switch. It is unclear if the Vikings will keep Peterson, although coach Mike Zimmerand general manager Rick Spielman have both indicated they want him back.

Therein lies the problem. Any sentient coach or general manager freed from the need for public approbation would look at the Hardys and Rices, the Petersons and Incognitos, and see players who are, to differing degrees, still viable, especially with relatively low-risk contracts like the one Incognito will be getting in Buffalo. Like Incognito was, all are potential targets for those who think they can manage the fallout, who can stomach the players' dented morality, who need the help in the huddle.

Fans should get used to this uneasy calculus, because of how quickly it is being made. Michael Vick was out of football for two full seasons -- which included a stint in a federal prison -- following the revelations about his involvement in a dogfighting ring. This gave everyone plenty of time to digest the painful details of his behavior, and to convince themselves that Vick had served his time and earned a second chance.

The time frame to go from scourge to signed has shortened dramatically, apparently, if Incognito's reemergence this weekend is any indication. Following a difficult season, we are supposed to be in a period of increased sensitivity by NFL teams. It's worth remembering that only works if the sensitivity to roster holes decreases.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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