METAIRIE, La. – Although the bounty scandal is now behind Jonathan Vilma, so are nine punishing NFL seasons.
The Saints linebacker and longtime defensive captain appreciates that many will wonder if he's lost a step after 870 tackles since turning pro in 2004, not to mention several knee procedures in the past two years. Vilma responds confidently to the skepticism, saying his rehabilitation is complete, and that he is in his best physical shape in years.
"Physically, I'm very good, a lot better than last year," Vilma asserted. "I'd be stupid to say I feel as great as when I was a rookie. Of course not. I do feel able to run and do all the things that I was able to do back in 2010. ... I just needed a little time (to rehabilitate) that I didn't get last year because of everything that was going on."
Indeed, a year has made a big difference in many aspects of Vilma's life. Last summer, while fighting his bounty suspension in federal court, he testified that damage to his reputation hurt his ability to raise money for business and charity endeavors.
Now, not only does he believe his football career is back on track, he is also expanding his business interests. Already an investor in multiple restaurants and bars, Vilma spoke said he prepared for Thursday's launch of his new venture involving a smartphone application catering to bars and club patrons. The launch coincided with reporting day for Saints training camp.
"I've been fortunate to play football and make a living out of it, but business has always interested me," said Vilma, who majored in finance at Miami, and whose new venture is called BarEye.
This season, meanwhile, should provide a clearer picture of how long Vilma can expect to remain in the business of playing football.
Vilma, 31, missed five games in 2011 with a left knee injury, then had several surgeries and 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 the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez.
Even as he went to such lengths, Vilma said his rehabilitation was hindered by the league's bounty investigation, which named him as the ringleader of a program that paid improper cash bonuses for hard and even injurious hits. Vilma initially received a full-season suspension, which banned him from Saints facilities during much of the offseason and training camp.
Vilma maintained he would never intentionally injure fellow players, and that the bonuses were similar to incentives NFL players league-wide had offered teammates for years.
During a lengthy appeal, he was reinstated in Week 1 of the regular season, but placed on the physically unable to perform list before finally playing on Oct. 21.
With Curtis Lofton in his old middle linebacker spot, Vilma played outside linebacker in 11 games, recording a career-low 37 tackles.
Now he must adapt to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme, which features a switch from a 4-3 alignment (four linemen, three linebackers) to a 3-4. When Vilma last played in a 3-4 for the New York Jets in 2007, it did not suit him. He was traded to New Orleans in 2008, where he thrived in a three-linebacker formation.
Vilma said this time will be different because Ryan's scheme is flexible enough to capitalize on players' strengths.
"What I like about Rob is he's saying, 'I don't want to limit you by putting you in a stagnant 3-4,'" said Vilma, who is expected to play weak side middle linebacker, with Lofton on the strong side. "It's about: Let's get after it, be aggressive. Let's be fast."
Vilma noted that in former coordinator Gregg Williams' defense from 2009-11, the Saints often pulled out of their basic 4-3 and blitzed out of a 3-4.
Ryan studied film of those seasons and brought back some of those schemes.
"He told us, 'I'm not going to mess with you guys. I know what you guys do well and what you don't do well, so I'm going to put you in a situation that makes you look good,'" Vilma said. "Hopefully it turns out that way."