Commentary

Saints hoping Vilma, Morgan can reverse curse

If star-crossed LBs Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan can stay healthy and play to their potential, the Saints' defense could emerge as a force in 2008, writes Pat Yasinskas.

Originally Published: March 12, 2008
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

Jonathan Vilma and Dan MorganGetty Images, AP PhotoWhen healthy, Jonathan Vilma (left) and Dan Morgan have shown they can compete at an elite level.

Maybe playing in a city where voodoo is part of the culture is exactly what Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan need.

Maybe playing in New Orleans will help reverse the curse that's hung around Vilma the past two seasons and around Morgan for just about his entire career. If that happens, the Saints suddenly could have one of the most talented linebacker corps in the NFL.

But it's a giant leap to say that will ever happen, because the histories of Morgan and Vilma make them two of the biggest gambles this offseason. With these two, it's either boom or bust, and their pasts suggest the latter is more probable.

The Saints don't care, because they haven't had a truly great linebacker since Sam Mills in the mid-1990s, and their defense was a big reason they missed the playoffs last season. The moves come one offseason after the Saints thought they had patched up their defense by bringing in Jason David, Dhani Jones, Brian Simmons and Kevin Kaesviharn. Those moves didn't all work, and other problems were exposed as the Saints finished 7-9.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton are at it again, and the focus is on defense because New Orleans already has the most talented offense in the NFC South. The Saints also signed cornerback Randall Gay and defensive end Bobby McCray.

Those two moves will help, but the addition of Vilma and Morgan could make the Saints a contender to go deep into the playoffs or keep them in the middle of the pack. The cost of getting Vilma and Morgan wasn't outrageous and the Saints believe the payoff could be huge.

The Saints traded a fourth-round pick this year and a conditional pick next year to get Vilma from the New York Jets. They signed Morgan to a one-year contract at a minimal salary after he was released by the Carolina Panthers.

"Dan Morgan can be as good as any linebacker in the league, when he's healthy,'' said one front office executive.

Vilma was the defensive rookie of the year in 2004 and led the NFL with 173 tackles in 2005. So why does just about every reference to Vilma and Morgan start with "if''? Because both former University of Miami linebackers are iffy. There might not be a more iffy player in the NFL than Morgan, 29.

Taken by Carolina with the 11th pick in the 2001 draft, Morgan seemed like a safe choice. He'd been highly productive in college and never had a serious injury. But all that changed quickly in a game midway through Morgan's rookie year. On a day when the grass at Bank of America Stadium started falling out in chunks, Morgan got his leg caught and broke it.

A string of other injuries followed and Morgan never has played an entire season. He had two concussions within three weeks in 2006 and has had at least five documented concussions in his career.

After sitting out almost all of the 2006 season, some high-ranking Carolina officials encouraged Morgan to retire, even though he had been given medical clearance to play. Morgan, who was raised in a football family (his father used to be Dan Marino's bodyguard) was emphatic that he wanted to keep playing.

Carolina officials always were confounded by Morgan's string of bad luck. He was a great locker-room guy and was brilliant (25 tackles in Super Bowl XXXVIII) when he was on the field. At the time, they decided if Morgan was going to play, it should be in Carolina.

Morgan showed up at training camp last summer in the best shape of his career, but lasted only three games before suffering an Achilles tendon injury. After that, rookie Jon Beason, another Miami product, took over in the middle. By the end of the season, it was obvious Beason was the centerpiece of Carolina's defense and Morgan was expendable.

Vilma's string of bad luck isn't as lengthy as Morgan's, but it's recent enough and powerful enough to make him just as big a question mark. Vilma seemed to be on his way to greatness after his first two seasons, but that started changing as soon as new coach Eric Mangini brought in the 3-4 defense in 2006.

Considered undersized for the 3-4, Vilma's numbers began slipping immediately. The Jets used a second-round pick last year to bring in middle linebacker David Harris and it became obvious Vilma might be on his way out.

Vilma got one more shot as a starter, but a dead piece of bone in his knee dislodged itself early last season and some verbal sparring between Mangini and Vilma began. Mangini said Vilma's performance declined because of a knee problem. Vilma, at first, denied having any problem with his knee. But he finally had surgery and sat out for the rest of the season.

Vilma has said his knee is healing well, but he'll need to recover all his speed to excel in a defense that will ask him to go sideline to sideline.

"I'm just glad to be getting back into a 4-3 defense,'' Vilma said shortly after the trade.

New Orleans' plan is to play Vilma in the middle and Morgan on the weak side, a spot he never has played. A fresh start might invigorate both careers and give New Orleans a huge defensive boost. But getting full and productive seasons out of these two star-crossed linebackers might require some sort of voodoo.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter