Teammates happy linebacker on field; Sunday still up in air
METAIRIE — While they don’t really know if he’ll play this week or not, the New Orleans Saints were happy Wednesday just to see embattled middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma put on his pads and walk onto the practice field.
As far as the Saints’ defense was concerned, it was a win just to have the nine-year veteran involved in practice for the first time in nine months.
“Just being out there for the start of practice and seeing him in pads, I joked with him and told him I was going to take a picture of him when he stepped foot on the field,” linebacker Scott Shanle said.
Vilma is trying to come back from multiple knee surgeries and a five-month battle over a one-year suspension handed him by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in an alleged bounty scandal.
After spending six weeks on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list, Vilma took what he hopes is the next step back to playing when the Saints continued preparing for Sunday’s game with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Once Vilma began practicing, the Saints have a 21-day window in which they must decide whether to put him on the 53-man active roster, release him or leave him on PUP for the remainder of the season.
Vilma, who wasn’t available during the locker room period open to media, said Sunday night on New Orleans TV station WVUE that he would practice this week and play against the Bucs.
Interim coach Aaron Kromer, however, was noncommittal Wednesday about the team’s plans for Vilma.
“All we can do is see how he practices this week, see how we can work him in and then make a decision on a weekly basis,” Kromer said. “He’s exempt to practice, so he did today and he looked good.”
Kromer, who has until Saturday afternoon to activate Vilma for the game with the Bucs, said Vilma could play a role even if he’s not 100 percent.
“When we can get him on the field (for a game), we’re going to put him on the field,” Kromer noted. “Whether it’s every play of the game or partial spots we put him in, we’d love to have Jon Vilma ready.”
As far as knowing the new scheme installed by first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Kromer said it shouldn’t be a problem for a player of Vilma’s caliber.
“He’s an instinctive player and he’s been in all the meetings for the entire time he’s been on PUP,” Kromer said of the three-time Pro Bowl pick. “It’s allowing him to see what’s going on and understand the schemes.
“I would expect that Jonathan would come back quickly just because he’s Jonathan Vilma. But he does look healthy.”
Many of his teammates said the same thing after watching him go through his first practice since the Saints’ 2011 postseason run ended in January.
When asked if he thought Vilma would play Sunday, free safety Malcolm Jenkins said, “I think so. … I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”
Jenkins said it appeared to him that Vilma is almost 100 percent.
“Oh yeah, he’s back,” he said. “He’s doing a bunch of extra stuff, too, to make sure he’s ready as far as conditioning and things like that.
“I know he’s been champing at the bit, and this is his opportunity this week,” Jenkins added. “I know he’ll be ready.”
Where he would line up is another question entirely.
Anticipating that they wouldn’t have Vilma, the Saints signed free-agent middle linebacker Curtis Lofton this winter and he’s been one of their top defenders with a team-leading 57 tackles.
“We’re still working everything out right now,” said Lofton, who noted that he and Vilma can play both the middle and weak side. “Hey, it’s good to have someone else come in. J.V., 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.”
Like Kromer, Lofton said Vilma looked good moving around.
“It was great having him back,” Lofton said. “He’s worked very hard to be back in the position to be able to play. Watching him today, he looked great. He looked like the Jonathan Vilma that I know and have watched.”
Jenkins said he was looking forward to having Vilma, one of the team’s defensive captains from 2009-11, back in the huddle.
“Leadership is something you really can’t coach and really can’t fake,” he said. “He’s a great natural-born leader, so whenever he steps out there his presence brings a sense of leadership you can’t get out of other people.”
“We’d love to play Jon Vilma as the Jon Vilma we all know,” Kromer said. “We just have to make sure that when Jon Vilma goes out on the field, it’s the guy we know.”