Barring a favorable ruling in federal court, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma has a window of one week to play in the NFL this season. His coaches and teammates weren't about to close it as the team returned from its open date, as unlikely as the scenario appeared.
Vilma told New Orleans TV station WVUE on Sunday that he would be activated from the PUP list and play against Tampa Bay. Interim coach Aaron Kromer and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo spoke positively about him on Monday but were non-committal.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reconfirmed his season-long suspension of Vilma for bounty-related offenses last week, but Vilma has appealed the decision. That appeal will be addressed next Tuesday, making him eligible to play this Sunday at Tampa Bay.
The issue is his health and familiarity with Spagnuolo's scheme. The Saints placed him on the Physically Unable to Perform list when a three-man appeals panel lifted his suspension the week before the season opener and threw it back to Goodell.
Vilma is eligible to come off PUP on Tuesday.
"He hasn't practiced yet, and we'll see what we can do on that," Kromer said. "If he can come anywhere close to being near able to play, he's going to say that he's playing. That's just Jonathan Vilma. He's jumping out of his shoes since he got back here before Game 1. He's worked really hard the last six weeks on PUP. Physically, he feels ready. Mentally, he feels ready. He's excited, and we'll see what happens."
Vilma was ineligible to practice Monday because the NFL's sixth week will not officially end until after the Monday night game.
“It's my understanding he'll be able to practice on Wednesday, which is a great thing for our team,” Spagnuolo said. “We have some things to figure out, but it's a good problem to have. It's good to have a guy like Jonathan Vilma ready to go. We know he's a long way away, and he does, too, but you just have to love the guy. He loves playing, loves competing, loves the guys and wants to be out there.”
Atlanta import Curtis Johnson replaced Vilma as the starting middle linebacker and has a team-high 54 tackles, matching Vilma's total from all of 2011, when he was bothered by a lingering left knee injury. Vilma has had three procedures on the knee since last November, so his health remains a question. He also did not have any time under Spagnuolo until his first suspension was lifted right before the season.
“He's been right there step for step with all of us,” Spagnuolo said. “But he's got to get out there and get a feel. The game is fast. It's one thing to sit in a meeting room. My guess is that he's a pretty quick learner and will be up to speed pretty quick.”
Vilma is a long-time captain for the Saints.
“Just getting him back out there will be a morale boost for everybody,” linebacker Scott Shanle said. “To see him out there with a helmet and pads on running around with a New Orleans Saints uniform on would be a huge step.”
Safety Roman Harper agreed.
“He's one our leaders,” Harper said. “He's a captain and our guy. You can never have too many good players.”