New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, about a week shy of his 29th birthday, is in his prime, getting rich and coming off his third Pro Bowl season.
But he can't help being disappointed by a lockout and court battle that has, for now, derailed football.
"Unfortunately it hasn't gone the way I wanted, just because I want to play football," Vilma said Saturday after a promotional appearance for Perry Ellis at Lakeside Mall. "We always talk about, 'the business side of football,' and we just try to get over these hurdles as quickly and as smoothly as possible."
Vilma addressed a variety of topics, from his charitable work in Haiti to the Saints' upcoming draft strategies, but it was understandable the lockout was the most pressing.
Since the league's collective bargaining agreement expired last month after two extensions, the owners have locked the players out and the players, claiming to have disbanded their union, have filed suit in federal court on antitrust grounds. The case is lingering before a federal district judge who has urged both sides to resume negotiations and hash out a new deal before one they may find less favorable is imposed on them.
In Vilma's eyes the situation has the aura of no one winning.
"It's never a good look for the game," he said. "It's never a good look for the fans to have the players and the owners arguing over money, and so hopefully we can get it worked out as soon as possible and get back playing."
Before the Saints' 2009 championship season, Vilma signed a five-year deal. His status as the team's defensive captain remains unchallenged after last season, in which he started all 16 games. His 131 tackles led New Orleans for the third consecutive season, and offered further proof, if any were needed, that the Saints made a superb move when they acquired Vilma from the Jets for a fourth-round pick in 2008.
In Vilma's case, the lockout hasn't really hampered his schedule. The Miami native, and University of Miami alum, still has Miami as his base, and he said his workouts there have followed the precise trajectory they would have if there were no lockout.
"That's what I'd normally be doing anyway, so this time isn't all that unsettling for me," he said.
He hopes to go to Haiti -- his parents hail from the Caribbean nation, although he was born in the United States -- in June. Vilma was one of the NFL players with Haitian roots who worked publicly to raise funds after a massive earthquake hit the island nation in 2008. In this offseason, the island's notoriously unstable and potentially violent politics have been in play, as presidential balloting goes back-and-forth, and Vilma is hoping the political dust will settle before he heads to Port-au-Prince to take stock of the situation on the ground.
As for taking stock of the Saints, Coach Sean Payton and other club officials are barred from communicating with players during the lockout, and with the team's workout facilities at the Metairie complex shuttered, Saints players have scattered about for offseason work and conditioning.
If quarterback Drew Brees wanted to arrange some kind of unofficial practice schedule for the Saints, the responsibility of getting the defensive side together would likely fall to Vilma and perhaps defensive end Will Smith, who lives in Kenner. But even if he and Brees did make such arrangements, they would likely prove less effective, according to Vilma.
"Definitely, we could easily set that up and get the guys down here and get the work done," he said. "But there's nothing like being around the whole environment, the facility and the coaches. We'll try to get as close to that as possible, though, because at the end of the day we want to get better, we want to win, and we're not going to let little setbacks stop us from that."
Indeed, Vilma argued the Saints' performance last season reflected that desire to win. A Super Bowl hangover, he said, is evidenced in a team that goes 8-8 and misses the playoffs, not one that battles for its division crown until the last week and does make the playoffs.
That said, Vilma expressed distaste with several aspects of last season.
"I thought the season was a good season," he said. "We battled through injuries, we battled through a lot of things during the season where we were still able to wind up 11-5 and top five in both offense and defense. Unfortunately, we didn't play our best, the way we wanted to, against Seattle. But you know what? Those things happen. It did leave a sour taste in my mouth, but we're not going to let that rain on the whole season. We still felt like we played well, and we've just got to take the next steps."
Those unit rankings -- the Saints finished No. 4 in the NFL in total defense and No. 6 in total offense -- mean the 2011 draft at the end of April isn't a make-or-break proposition for New Orleans, Vilma said. He has followed the widespread predictions the Saints will seek improvements in their defensive front seven in the draft, and said he is fine with that direction, even though he said it is less a shortcoming than some observers believe.
"I think right now we're in a good position and we don't have any glaring needs," he said. "We look at our team and we say we have guys who are bona fide starters, legitimate starters. Now it's always good to add depth, similar to Patrick Robinson, a terrific athlete, last year. So I feel like if the need is front seven, quote-unquote, I feel like it will be more for depth. I think we have a solid front seven; I think we have good players."
Along those lines, Vilma said he has spoken with Shaun Rogers, the defensive tackle the Saints signed after he was released by Cleveland, although the two do not know each other well. The scattered reports Rogers may have something less than an ideal work ethic or attitude do not align with the word Vilma said he has gotten on Rogers from his peers.
"Just looking at him, watching him play, hearing about him -- it's all good things," he said. "His work ethic, his size, his talent, that all speaks for itself, and I'm real excited to be working with him this year."Click here to order Jon Vilma’s proCane Rookie Card.