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Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith remain willing to play Thursday night, then travel to Washington to participate in the appeals hearing of their former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, if former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue agreed to postpone the proceedings a few hours.Tagliabue scheduled the hearings to begin Thursday, which coincides with the Saints' game against the Falcons in Atlanta. It is New Orleans' only midweek regular-season game.
Still, Vilma and Smith could travel from Atlanta to attend the hearing if it were delayed until mid-morning Friday. Tagliabue so far has declined to change the schedule, according to a source. The NFL declined comment, citing Tagliabue's preference that no information be released.
The source explained that Vilma and Smith want to be present to assist the lawyers, who are expecting to be provided their first opportunity to cross-examine Williams and Mike Cerullo, both former members of Sean Payton's coaching staff who provided the NFL most of the information about the team's alleged bounty program.
According to court documents obtained last week by The Associated Press, the NFL is responsible for making Cerullo available Thursday, the same day as the Saints-Falcons game. Williams' hearing is scheduled for Friday morning. Their testimony was accepted by commissioner Roger Goodell as the primary evidence against the Saints and resulted in historic punishments.
Vilma is appealing a season-long suspension but has been playing until the appeals process is completed. Smith was suspended for four games and former Saints players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove were also suspended. Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt also were handed lengthy suspensions, including Payton for the entire season.
A source said that Vilma and Smith believe they have endured a long wait for a critical hearing. Their participation is important to their case, the source said, because the players believe their firsthand knowledge of what took place is needed to alert lawyers to any potential false claims.
Vilma expressed his disappointment to reporters in the locker room last week.
"The witness part is good. I think it's (unfortunate) that I'm not going to be there for Cerullo and Williams when they testify," Vilma said. "These people are why I was (initially) suspended for a year, so I would love to be there. I don't know why (Tagliabue) did that, but whatever."
At the same time, Vilma elaborated about his purpose in attending the hearing to ESPN.
"Will and I would know what to ask based on their responses," Vilma said. "There's no reason why I shouldn't be there when they are. The only way to know for sure that something isn't missed is for me to be there."
Tagliabue indicated that he expects to rule shortly after the last hearing, which potentially could lead to Vilma and Smith having to serve their suspensions late in the regular season.
''There's always that possibility," Vilma said, but added, ''Once Gregg and Cerullo get on the stand and testify, we feel like there's no plausible way we could be suspended after that."
Peter Ginsburg, who represents Vilma, and NFLPA lawyers representing the other players, failed in their attempt to convince Tagliabue to recuse himself based on his alleged conflict of interest. Tagliabue works for the same law firm that represents the NFL and is defending Goodell in a defamation suit filed by Vilma. The suit, which is before U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan in New Orleans, is pending.
The Saints are 4-2 since Vilma rejoined the team.