Ever since the NFL announced player suspensions for what it called a three-year bounty program by New Orleans, I’ve said the on-field implications for the Saints weren’t that significant.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was handed a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith received a four-game suspension. Vilma has been the leader of the defense since his arrival in 2008, but knee problems and age seemed to slow him last season. The Saints signed Curtis Lofton in free agency, and I view him as an upgrade over Vilma, who's on the back half of his career. Smith is New Orleans’ top pass-rusher, but the Saints could have gotten through those four games without too much trouble. They survived last season when Smith was suspended for the first two games.
But after hearing Friday’s news that an appeals panel has overturned the suspensions, I've changed my mind. I think having Vilma and Smith back is a huge victory for the Saints and will be significant on the field.
Let’s start with Smith. The Saints probably could have gotten by with Turk McBride, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson sharing Smith’s spot. But this team is much better with its best pass-rusher, especially when you consider the Saints open against the Washington Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III on Sunday. Smith didn’t practice this week, but he went through training camp and is in good shape. I think it’s safe to say Smith will be even more motivated than usual this weekend.
Now let’s move over to Vilma. Part of the reason the Saints have had one of the best franchises in the NFL the past four seasons is they have outstanding leadership. Everyone knows about quarterback Drew Brees' leadership skills. But I don’t think people who haven’t been around the Saints can really understand what Vilma means to this team. He essentially is to the defense what Brees is to the offense. Vilma is the heart and soul of the unit and is respected every bit as much as Brees is in the locker room.
Vilma was rehabbing his knee before his suspension began and wasn’t able to take part in the offseason program. I don’t know what Vilma’s current health status is. He may not be ready for Sunday’s season opener and there’s been speculation he might begin the season on the physically unable to perform list.
His health isn’t the important thing here. Just having Vilma in the locker room is even more important than having him on the field.
He’s smart, he’s good with young players and he’s a fiery competitor. I have little doubt that all that Vilma has been through recently will not make him even more fiery. The Saints already approached this season with a chip on their shoulder and view themselves in a situation in which the world is against them. Vilma only is going to add to that.
Vilma has been trying to clear his name, and the lifting of the suspension certainly helps. But a lot of people still will look at him and think “bounty." There still is a chance that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could reissue some sort of punishment, but the panel said that can only happen if there is evidence of more than a pay-for-performance program. That means there still is the possibility of more mudslinging.
But as long as he’s reinstated, Vilma holds the upper hand when it comes to clearing his name. The best and purest way to do that is to go out and provide the kind of leadership he always has for his teammates. The Super Bowl is in New Orleans this season. If the Saints can become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their hometown, Vilma, Smith and the Saints can come out of what was an absolute mess looking very good.
With coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis still serving suspensions, the Saints need all the leadership they can get. They should get plenty from Vilma, Brees and, to a lesser extent, Smith. But maybe Vilma’s even more of a leader than any of us previously realized. He fought his suspension so hard and, at least for the moment, has won. What’s happened with Vilma just might lead Payton, Vitt and Loomis to resort to legal action to get their suspensions overturned.
If that happens, Vilma will be New Orleans’ most valuable player, even if his knee doesn’t allow him to play a down this season.