METAIRIE, La. — Lance Moore stood up in the middle of the Saints’ stretching period with an announcement to make.
There was a new defensive player with the team and the receiver wanted his fellow teammates to take notice.
What followed was enthusiastic applause and, in that one moment, linebacker Jonathan Vilma was officially welcomed back to the football team even if he wasn’t necessarily on the active roster.
“It’s good to have him,” linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “He’s one of the leaders of the team. Even though he wasn’t here, he still holds that title.”
Added safety Malcolm Jenkins, “I’m a captain but I know it’s different when Jonathan steps out there. So to have him back, even if he’s not 100 percent, we don’t know how long it’ll be. But just for one game, it’s going to be big for us.”
Vilma wasn’t available during the 45-minute period reporters were allowed in the locker room for interviews on Wednesday.
But by listening to his teammates talk about him, that’s about the only time he was missed Wednesday.
“Having him back out there, seeing his face, seeing him in pads knowing everything he’s been through and is going through and worked so hard to come back on the football field, it adds extra energy. Guys are excited and I’m excited to play with him,” middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
Vilma is still on New Orleans’ 53-man roster. As a part of league rules governing the physically unable to perform list, Wednesday started a three-week clock for the team to decide whether the linebacker is healthy is enough to play.
The moment Vilma is moved up to the active roster, the team will be required to make a roster move opening up space for him.
Still, it has been quite the journey for Vilma in the 2012 calendar year. He had surgery early in the year in hopes of fixing issues with his left knee which kept him out of five games in 2011.
In March, he was named as a key part of the NFL’s investigation into what it said was a three-year bounty program and two months later, was suspended for the full 2012 season. He appealed and, in June, was denied his appeal.
A three-member appeals panel overturned Goodell’s suspensions in early September and the commissioner re-suspended the players on Oct. 9. He’s set hear the players’ appeals on Oct. 23.
Meanwhile, Vilma sued NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation, a case that’s still pending.
So, just seeing Vilma in the stretch line and running through individual linebacker drills and playing on the scout team Wednesday was a bit of a sweet reward for those who have been openly critical of the NFL and its handling of the bounty probe and subsequent suspensions.
“I hope that we’re closer to obviously the truth and justice being served,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “And it seems like the longer this goes, obviously Vilma continues to fight for what’s right and a fair process which I think is extremely justified.
“The fact that he was out there practicing today it just kind of puts a smile on everybody’s face knowing what he’s been through and having the opportunity to get him back.”
The question interim head coach Aaron Kromer and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo must now ask is whether Vilma is healthy enough and has learned enough of the defense to play on Sunday at Tampa Bay.
Vilma hasn’t practiced since January prior to the NFC divisional playoff game at San Francisco. He missed all of training camp and has been on the PUP list for the first six weeks of this season.
“We'd love to play Jon Vilma as the Jon Vilma we all know,” Kromer said. “And we've just got to make sure when Jon Vilma goes on the field it's the guy we know.”
Should they decide he’s good to go, the next question is where to play him. Lofton has been a standout at middle linebacker, leading the team with 57 tackles and recording one sack and two passes defensed.
Lofton hinted that both can play either inside or outside positions at linebacker
“We’re still working everything out right now,” Lofton said. “I’ve been in the middle. I’ve been making all of the calls and all of the adjustments. But, hey, it’s also good to have someone else come in. JV, he’s been the leader of this defense for many years. You can’t have too many leaders and too many communicators on the field at once.”