Saints linebacker Jon Vilma expressed disappointment on Friday that the new schedule for bounty hearings virtually prevents him from being able to personally confront his accusers.
Vilma wanted to be present for witness interviews with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, who assisted the NFL’s investigation into the Saints cash-for-hits pool.
According to documents obtained this week by The Associated Press, the NFL is responsible for producing Cerullo in Washington, DC, on Thursday, the same day the Saints play in Atlanta. Williams is scheduled to appear Friday morning.
The schedule was set by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to oversee the latest round of appeal hearings in the matter.
Vilma says he appreciates that Tagliabue is directing the NFL to produce witnesses after the league initially resisted. Yet he cannot help but wonder whether the hearing schedule was designed to discourage him from attempting to attend the hearing sessions featuring the cross-examination of Williams and Cerullo.
"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."
Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, US District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.
Vilma and Saints defensive end Will Smith were among four players initially suspended for various lengths, but those punishments were vacated. Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued the suspensions with some modifications, and when the players appealed again, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to oversee the new hearings. Vilma and Smith are still playing pending the outcomes of their appeals and have not served a game of their suspensions.
For Vilma, getting back on the field was a personal triumph, not only because of the relentless legal resistance he has put forth fighting his suspension. The suspension came down while Vilma also was rehabilitating from multiple left knee surgeries, and when the Saints signed a younger Curtis Lofton to play his old spot, some wondered whether the 30-year-old Vilma’s days playing in New Orleans, if not the NFL, were effectively over.
His suspension vacated, Vilma returned after spending the first six weeks on the physically unable to prepare list — a time used to get back in shape after being banned from training camp. He said finally getting on the field has made him feel whole again.
"That’s all I ever wanted, to be back on the field playing, winning games, so if we’re doing that I’m always happy," Vilma said.
The Saints are 4-1 since Vilma’s return and the defense has been playing better. Vilma did not get back his old middle linebacker position, which Lofton still holds. Vilma now plays on the weak side and is not in for every play as he was before. Still, he is wearing the captain’s patch on his jersey again and teammates say his presence has helped.
"His leadership and just him being there, it has definitely allowed guys to loosen up and really trust themselves, play fast," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It’s been showing the last few games."
Since his return, Vilma has been credited with 13 total tackles, including a sack among three tackles for losses. He also has two quarterback hurries.
"Let’s face it — any defense is better with Jonathan Vilma in there," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I go back to the topic of him and Curtis (Lofton) working together.
"They are helping each other with the calls. There are some checks that need to be made by the (middle) linebacker. Curtis does a great job on his own but to have another guy to lean on and somebody that might see one side of the football while he is looking at the other has been good."
For now, Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses. They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington, DC and New Orleans from Tuesday through Dec. 4.
Tagliabue wrote in the document that he expects to rule shortly after the last hearing, which could potentially lead to Vilma and Smith having to serve 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."
Smith is fighting a four-game suspension. The two other players punished are former Saints: Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now on injured reserve, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.