METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton didn’t mince his words Thursday when finally explaining his decision to place linebacker Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve, ending the season of the defense’s emotional leader midway through the campaign.
He’ll take a player like Vilma any day.
“He has been one of the all-timers as a coach now as far as a standup guy, a guy that prepares and a guy that takes everything he has done in the film room and brings it to the field,” said Payton, who has coached Vilma since 2008. “I’ve said this before. He has been what Drew has been to our offense to our defense. You’re always going to go the extra mile with a player like that.”
Vilma saw 12 snaps, finishing with one tackle, in the Saints’ Sunday loss to the New York Jets. It was his first game of the season.
That time on the field came after two weeks of practice that followed a nearly two-month stint on the sideline, six of which were spent on the IR/Designated to Return list.
Vilma has had several surgeries since the middle of the 2011 on the left knee and the latest once came in August, when he underwent an arthroscopic procedure.
The move, Payton explained, had nothing to do with a setback in the progression of Vilma’s injured left knee.
“The feeling on both of our parts was that what he’s used to and accustomed to playing, at a certain speed and a certain level and certainly what we’ve seen, still wasn’t there but he’s progressing,” Payton said.
Instead, Payton said the team took a long-term look at how Vilma could help the team and if he would be to a point where he could help the team more than players who aren’t injured and are getting practice time.
“Probably bringing him back quickly like this was something you can second guess but again, I’ll make that mistake with a guy like Jon Vilma and I’ve made it before,” Payton said.
While Vilma’s leadership will be missed on the field, it’s his leadership off of it that has helped the Saints achieve the success they have since 2009.
He stood up to the NFL in 2012 after the league fingered him for having a leadership role in what the league described as a three-year bounty program.
“That’s a whole different element,” Payton said. “The way he handled that, none of that surprised me. Bring me as many Jon Vilmas as you can.”
For now, the Saints won’t make a decision on Vilma’s future. Payton said there doesn’t need to be one now because his knee is progressing.
“It is getting better and that’s encouraging,” Payton said. “That’s why I know for certain that there’s no finality or any decisions being made today. There doesn’t need to be.”