Saints linebacker eligible to return as early as Week 9 against Jets
“You look at a lot of the older guys ... and I want to be able to walk ... when I’m 50 or 60 years old. You start hearing about guys and how they’re not really living — they’re just surviving. I don’t want to be one of those guys.”
After being on short-term injured reserve since early September, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma won’t lie — he wants to suit up and play as soon as he’s eligible to against the New York Jets in Week 9.
But Vilma on Tuesday also said he won’t lie if the knee he had arthroscopic knee surgery on in mid-August at any point before then tells him he’s not ready to play football again. He’d rather land on season-ending IR this year than rush back and hurt his knee in a way he’ll regret when he’s a sexagenarian.
“You look at a lot of the older guys ... and I want to be able to walk ... when I’m 50 or 60 years old,” said Vilma, who, during his remarks, alluded to Earl Campbell, a workhorse running back for the Houston Oilers and the Saints in the 1970s and 80s who now copes with severe arthritis and back pain.
“You start hearing about guys and how they’re not really living — they’re just surviving. I don’t want to be one of those guys.”
Vilma, whose knee problems have been a recurring issue in his career, returned to practice Monday for the first time since going under the knife in mid-August to relieve swelling and discomfort he was experiencing following a scrimmage at training camp. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” at his conditioning, that his knee held up and that he “practiced well.”
“I was very optimistic about it,” Vilma said. “Coaches said I looked good running around.”
But Vilma, 31 and in his 10th season in the NFL, admitted he must see how his knee holds up “after two, three, four days of practice” before he and the Saints decide if he’s healthy enough to play anew.
“I’ll be honest and let (the Saints) know my knee is saying, ‘No mas (no more),’” Vilma said.
The Saints placed Vilma on short-term injured reserve five days ahead of the regular-season opener, forcing him to miss six weeks of practice. Ineligible to play again until the Saints (5-1) visit the New York Jets (4-3) on Nov. 3, Vilma met with the media Tuesday while promoting his fourth annual “Celebrity Servers Dinner” at Morton’s The Steakhouse on Nov. 11 to benefit his foundation, dedicated to supporting the construction of a school in Haiti.
Vilma talked about how his parents are from Haiti, and he still has relatives in the Caribbean nation, which was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2010. He also explained he’s motivated to recuperate from his injury and rejoin the Saints’ 53-man roster — but wary that he may not be able to because he fears risking anything that would bar him from enjoying “the rest of (his) life and ... the fruits of (his) labor.”
“Don’t get me wrong — I still love (football),” Vilma said. “I really have to just take a conscientious ... and objective look about ... where I want to be.”
He admitted he may not have had that perspective earlier in a career that’s turned out to be, at times, injury-plagued.
Vilma was in his fourth year with the Jets, the team that drafted him, when he suffered a knee injury seven games in the 2007 campaign. He needed surgery, and the Jets put him on IR.
New York then traded Vilma to the Saints for a fourth-round draft pick.
His first three seasons in New Orleans were productive and saw him miss just one game. According to the website Pro Football Focus, he led the team in each season with 57, 44 and 46 stops, or solo tackles that result in a failed play for the offense.
He accounted for nine turnovers and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV.
But he sat out five games with knee problems in 2011. He also spent the first six weeks of 2012 on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from offseason knee surgery.
He was much less prolific the past two years. For example, he was credited with just 18 stops in 2011 as well as in 2012.
“If I’m healthy, I play well,” Vilma said Tuesday. “If I’m not, I don’t.”
Vilma said he would have prepared his body to play at the start of this season if coach Sean Payton needed him to, but, “Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that.”
While Vilma healed, coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense piled up sacks, created turnovers and helped the Saints win their first five games. Inside linebacker David Hawthorne proved to be quite effective stepping in for Vilma. He had 15 stops in the Saints’ first six games, trailing only fellow inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, who amassed 25.
Vilma praised the work Ryan and his teammates have done so far.
“They’re playing football” the way it’s supposed to be played, he said.