NEW ORLEANS – If the Saints decide Jonathan Vilma is ready, the embattled linebacker will take the field in Tampa Bay on Sunday for the first time this season.
It might also be the last time, depending on how things go at NFL headquarters and in federal court.
On Monday, Vilma again asked a federal judge to overturn his recently re-issued suspension in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints, and the NFL Players Association made a similar request on behalf of three other players.
None of the four players' suspensions are currently being enforced, but that could change as early as next week. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has scheduled the players' appeal hearings for Oct. 23.
The players want U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to begin considering their cases now so she may be ready to rule by the time the NFL's appeal's process concludes.
Vilma's latest filing said Goodell conducted a "farcical review" of his previously overturned disciplinary action before ruling last week that the Saints linebacker would remain suspended for the season.
The NFL did not immediately respond to requests for comment, deferring instead to its legal response which is due in federal court Wednesday.
Vilma is facing the longest suspension of four players punished in connection with what the NFL has said was a pool that rewarded Saints players with improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents.
Saints defensive end Will Smith was docked four games, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove seven games and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita one game. Vilma's and Smith's suspensions remain unchanged from what Goodell initially handed down. Hargrove's suspension was reduced by one game and he was given credit for five games missed as a free agent. Fujita's ban was reduced from three games.
The NFL Players Association is representing Smith, Hargrove and Fujita. Vilma has his own lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams.
The players said Goodell has continued to abuse his power and demonstrate bias, leaving no hope for a fair process that would respect their "industrial due process rights."
They also asked Berrigan to bar Goodell from handling any further action in the bounty matter and appoint a neutral arbitrator.
"The commissioner of a professional sports league is not exempt from the requirement that he or she be impartial when serving as an arbitrator, and courts vacate arbitration awards when a commissioner falls short of the required standard of impartiality in considering a particular matter," Vilma's new legal papers said.
In the meantime, Vilma is eligible to return to the Saints' lineup.
The linebacker has been on the club's physically unable to perform list since shortly after his initial suspension was overturned by an NFL appeal panel on Sept. 7, but now that the first six weeks of the season have passed, the Saints could activate him as early as Tuesday.
While Saints coaches declined to confirm such plans, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said it was his understanding Vilma will "be able to practice on Wednesday, which I think is a great thing for our football team and our defense."
Curtis Lofton has taken over Vilma's middle linebacker spot, but Spagnuolo said there is room in the lineup for both.
"Let's get them out there, practice and get ready with the one focus being figuring out what's best to help our team beat Tampa Bay," Spagnuolo said. "That will be the No. 1 focus this week with nothing else in sight other than that."
Fellow linebacker Scott Shanle said it would be difficult for a player to adjust to the Saints' new defense in one week of practice, but added that Vilma might be an exception.
"In the 10 years I've played he's the smartest linebacker I've played with," Shanle said. "It was talked about a lot after the (2010) Super Bowl that it was Peyton Manning and Jonathan Vilma in an audible contest and Vilma consistently won, and our coaches always had that trust in him. So when you can get a player like that back, it's a huge boost."
Of course, if the Saints do get Vilma back on the field this weekend, they could still lose him next week.
All four players punished in the bounty probe have asked Goodell to recuse himself from the NFL appeals process, but he has so far refused.
The NFLPA pointed out in its latest motion that although Goodell was given the power in the league's current labor agreement to discipline players for conduct detrimental to football, he may only do so if he complies with "governing legal standards."
The union said Goodell violated those standards by talking publicly about the players' alleged wrongdoing before the disciplinary process began, and by failing to consider conflicting witness testimony or mischaracterizations of evidence by league investigators.
"It is startling that the Commissioner has damaged the careers and reputations of the Players on such scant, contradictory and incredible sources," the NFLPA said.
A three-member appeals created by the NFL's labor agreement vacated the initial suspensions on Sept. 7 and told Goodell he needed to clarify the basis for his rulings. The panel noted that punishments should not have anything to do with cash paid out of the Saints' pay-for-performance pool, because an arbitrator other than the commissioner is supposed to handle such salary cap violations.
The latest legal filings point out that Goodell repeatedly mentioned pay-for-performance allegations as part of the basis for the initial punishment, and that the commissioner's decision to maintain similar suspensions highlights the lack of fairness in the process.
Saints coaches and players have acknowledged the existence of a pool that both fined players for penalties and offered rewards for big plays, including big, non-penalized hits that may have resulted in opposing players leaving games for a play or longer.
Goodell has stated that in their acknowledgement of the pool, the Saints have admitted they encouraged hits that were shown to have injured opponents. Regardless of intent, Goodell said, such a program is intolerable because it sends the message that hits that hurt opponents deserve a reward, and that can affect how players on team approach subsequent games.
Vilma and the NFLPA initially filed suit in July, but the matter was placed on hold when the NFL appeal panel vacated the initial player suspensions on technical grounds and the disciplinary phase started over.