By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. — As the Saints began their pre-practice stretch on Wednesday, receiver Lance Moore hopped up, looked over at linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and hollered, “Glad you’re back! We missed you!” while the entire team offered a round of applause.
“Hello!” Vilma responded with a smile, still seated on the field, one leg pulled over another.
Vilma then did something he had yet to do in 2012: practice.
And it was obvious the Saints were pulling for him to be ready to play this Sunday in Tampa Bay, which might be his only chance to get back on the field this season if his bounty suspension, currently on appeal, winds up going back into effect in a week or so.
“Vilma continues to fight for what’s right and a fair process which I think is extremely justified,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “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.”
Vilma did not work with the first team, but also did not wear any kind of brace or sleeve on his surgically repaired left knee, which has been another obstacle to his return.
“He’s back,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He’s doing a bunch of extra stuff, too, to make sure he’s ready as far as conditioning and things like that. But he’s ready to play. I know he’s been champing at the bit and this is his opportunity this week and I know he’ll be ready.”
Vilma had several offseason procedures done on his knee, which had slowed him last season and sidelined him five games. He even traveled to Germany to see a specialist in platelet rich plasma therapy, a relatively new blood-spinning technique also used by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Vilma’s initial season-long suspension was handed down in May and went into effect in July after his initial appeal was rejected. That suspension lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeal panel that instructed Commissioner Roger Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending Vilma and three others — Saints defensive end Will Smith, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita — in connection with New Orleans’ cash-for-hits bounty pool.
Because of his rehabilitation, Vilma was placed on the Saints’ physically unable to perform list when his initial suspension was lifted, a move that saved the Saints a roster spot and also prevented Vilma from practicing or playing during the first six weeks of the regular season.
The suspensions were reissued last week and promptly appealed by all four players, with appeal hearings set for next Tuesday at NFL headquarters in New York. Vilma remains suspended for the season and Smith for four games. Hargrove’s was reduced from eight to seven games and Fujita from three to one.
Vilma did not make himself available for comment while the locker room at Saints headquarters was opened to reporters on Wednesday afternoon. However, his teammates had plenty to say about how he looked and what it would mean to get him back on the field.
“Having him on the sideline when he wasn’t suited up was one thing,” linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “Now, suited up, ready to go, maybe get some plays here and there … It’s definitely good to have him out there. He’s always been that energy on the defensive side of the ball that we needed.”
For the past four seasons, Vilma was a defensive captain and starting middle linebacker, making all the defensive calls on the field. Now the Saints have a new defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Vilma has now practiced in the scheme only once, although he has been numerous defensive meetings.
“It’s Jonathan Vilma. He’s one of best football players in the National Football League. He’s an instinctive player and he’s been in all the meetings for the entire time he’s been on PUP, allowing him to see what’s going on, understand the schemes,” interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. “All we can do as see as it goes on, but I would expect Jon would come back quickly because he’s Jon Vilma. … He does look healthy.”
Kromer and Spagnuolo have said they can find a spot for Vilma, even if Curtis Lofton remains at starting middle linebacker. Lofton said he also is confident he and Vilma will have good chemistry on the field.
“You can’t have too many great football players out on the football field,” Lofton said. “You can’t have too many leaders and too many communicators on the field at once.
“He’s been the leader of the defense,” Lofton added. “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.”