METAIRIE, La. – Steve Spagnuolo isn’t sure exactly where Jonathan Vilma will be physically or mentally when he returns to the practice field from physically unable to perform status.
But when Vilma does return, which Spagnuolo expects to be Wednesday, there’s likely to be an emotional boost from the suspended and then unsuspended and then suspended again player.
“I know one thing - it’s good to have a guy like Jonathan Vilma ready to go,” Spagnuolo said.
He went on, “You’ve just got to love the guy. He loves playing. He loves competing. Loves being with the guys. Wants to be out there. They all do. We’ll get it figured out.”
Vilma originally was suspended for the entire season for what the NFL believed was a leading role in a three-year bounty program the league says the Saints ran under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The Saints’ emotional and vocal leader on defense subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as well as a temporary restraining order on his suspension.
A three-member panel vacated the suspension, along with those levied on current New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and former Saints players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, in early September.
The move allowed all four to be eligible to play but the Saints place Vilma on PUP to continue rehabilitating from extensive offseason knee surgery. NFL rules say a team can take a player off PUP anywhere between the sixth and ninth week of the season and make him active. Teams can practice the player during that three-week period to get a handle on how far along the injured player is before activating him or putting him on IR.
On Oct. 9, Goodell again levied suspensions on the players, giving Vilma the final 11 games of the season. But the linebacker, along with the other players, again are appealing the ruling, keeping them eligible for now. Goodell will hear the appeals on Oct. 23.
For Vilma, the clock starts after Monday night’s game ends Week 6 of the season.
Yet, with offseason free agent acquisition Curtis Lofton playing a big role already, the question is where Vilma fits in. Lofton leads the Saints with 57 tackles and also has two passes defensed and a sack.
Those involved don’t expect it to be an issue.
“Do we have some things to figure out? Yep,” Spagnuolo said. “But it’s a good problem to have.”
“I just think it’s a good problem to have when you have those types of football players and those types of leaders, you’ll end up finding a spot for those guys,” added strongside linebacker Scott Shanle.
Interim head coach Aaron Kromer said it’ll be important to get Vilma back on the field.
“Jonathan Vilma is one of the top football players in the National Football League and has been so it’s a necessity that we find a place that he can help us win,” he said
Nevertheless, it’s not just Vilma’s on-field presence that has players excited about seeing return. It’s his leadership role overall that has his fellow teammates giddy with excitement.
“Being able to see him back, see him in a jersey and running around, we know what we get with a football player and we know what we get in a leader with Vilma,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “So we look forward to having him back.”
Spagnuolo is only in his first year with the Saints, but he has watched Vilma work alongside those on the active roster each week this season.
He’s fairly certain Vilma will be able to acclimate quickly enough to the new defense once he’s on the field.
“We’re talking about a guy that picks up things like that,” Spagnuolo said. “He has been right there step for step with all of us right along the way. But he knows. He has got to get out there and get a feel of the game. It’s fast. It’s one thing to sit in there in a meeting.
“My guess is he’s a pretty quick learner and will be up to speed pretty quick. That’s my guess.”