As the Saints began their pre-practice stretch on Wednesday, receiver Lance Moore hopped up, looked over at linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and hollered, "Glad you're back! We missed you!" while the entire team offered a round of applause.
"Hello!" Vilma responded with a smile, still seated on the field, one leg pulled over another.
Vilma then did something he had yet to do in 2012: practice.
And it was obvious the Saints were pulling for him to be ready to play this Sunday in Tampa Bay, which might be his only chance to get back on the field this season if his bounty suspension, currently on appeal, winds up going back into effect in a week or so.
"Vilma continues to fight for what's right and a fair process which I think is extremely justified," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "The fact that he was out there practicing today, it just kind of puts a smile on everybody's face knowing what he's been through and having the opportunity to get him back."
Vilma did not work with the first team, but also did not wear any kind of brace or sleeve on his surgically repaired left knee, which has been another obstacle to his return. Vilma had several offseason procedures done on his knee, which had slowed him last season and sidelined him five games. He even 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 New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Vilma's initial season-long suspension was handed down in May and went into effect in July after his initial appeal was rejected. That suspension lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeal panel that instructed commissioner Roger Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending Vilma and three others Saints defensive end Will Smith, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita in connection with New Orleans' cash-for-hits bounty pool.
Because of his rehabilitation, Vilma was placed on the Saints' physically unable to perform list when his initial suspension was lifted, a move that saved the Saints a roster spot and also prevented Vilma from practicing or playing during the first six weeks of the regular season.
The suspensions were reissued last week and promptly appealed by all four players, with appeal hearings set for next Tuesday at NFL headquarters in New York.
Suggs returns, and Lewis may, too
The Baltimore Ravens haven't completely abandoned hope of having Ray Lewis back in uniform this season.
Lewis tore his right triceps in Sunday's game against Dallas and was scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday. Although coach John Harbaugh said Monday that the 37-year-old linebacker is out for the year, the Ravens placed Lewis on injured reserve with the "designated to return" tag.
Wednesday's move makes Lewis eligible to return in six weeks. He does not count against the 53-man roster.
The loss of Lewis coincides with the return of linebacker Terrell Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Suggs practiced Wednesday for the first time this season after missing months with a torn right Achilles tendon.
Suggs is still favoring his right leg, so the Ravens aren't expecting much from him too soon.
Around the league
Browns • Joe Banner, who spent 19 years with the Eagles, including 12 seasons as team president, was introduced Wednesday as CEO of the Browns, joining new owner Jimmy Haslam III in trying to turn around a franchise stuck in an almost continuous cycle of losing.
Raiders • Linebacker Aaron Curry returned to practice for the first time since May after dealing with nagging knee problems in recent months. Curry began the season on the physically unable to perform list and was unable to practice for the first six weeks.
Bills • Shawne Merriman finds himself back in Buffalo eager to resume playing football after a two-month break. Deemed expendable in mid-August, when the Bills cut Merriman, the pass-rushing specialist nicknamed "Lights Out" is back in a bid to provide a spark and add veteran depth to an injury-depleted defensive line.
Titans • Jake Locker has practiced for the first time since dislocating his left, non-throwing shoulder and coach Mike Munchak said the quarterback is on target to return when Tennessee hosts Indianapolis on Oct. 28.
Bengals • Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is getting close to his injury-delayed debut. Cincinnati's top draft pick hurt his left knee while working out during the summer, forcing him to miss out on the chance to compete for a starting job during training camp. It could happen Sunday night against Pittsburgh.
Seattle at San Francisco
P Thursday, 6:20 p.m.
TV • NFL Network
Full Week 7 schedule. > D8