The New Orleans Saints played an overwhelming majority of this season without linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was sidelined the first seven games while recovering from knee surgery on the Reserve/Injured; Designated for Return list.
The defense, in fact, this season played some of its best football of the last three seasons minus the valued leader whose work ethic, intelligence and ability to transfer film study to the playing field was second to none.
But that didn't make it any easier Thursday for Coach Sean Payton to announce that after one game and 12 defensive snaps against the New York Jets, Vilma's season was over.
Vilma has been placed on injured reserve. Cornerback/safety Chris Carr, who was released last week to make room for Vilma's addition to the active roster, was re-signed to replace Vilma.
"Obviously, it's a difficult decision," Payton said. "He didn't have any setbacks. There's still some work to go for him in regards to his rehab. When he and I spoke, which was quite often in the last two days, the feeling on both of our parts was that what he's used to and accustomed to playing, at a certain speed and a certain level and what we've seen, still wasn't there. But he's progressing.
"That being said, the process that allowed him to go to (Reserve/Injured), our decision to do that and kind of see if he could get better quick enough to play, I don't regret – especially with a player like Jon Vilma.
"I know this: I know he's made no long-term decisions. We just had real good dialogue, and obviously difficult dialogue, with a guy that we won a world championship with and he's been a great leader in this locker room. Time will tell, with respect to where he goes, where we go long term."
Vilma was credited with two tackles against the Jets.
He missed the first six weeks of last season while on the Physically Unable to Perform list, due to rehabilitation after surgery on the same knee, and had to sit out five games in 2011 due to injury. But the former defensive captain (2009-12) led the team in tackles three times (2008-10).
More, he led his teammates and helped raise their level of play.
"As far as a stand-up guy, a guy that prepares and a guy that takes everything he's done in the film room and brings it to the field, he has been to our defense what Drew (Brees) has been to our offense," Payton said. "You're always going to go the extra mile with a player like that.
"Probably, bringing him back quickly like this was something you could second guess. But I'll make that mistake with a guy like Jon Vilma."
The defense again will move ahead without his services. But it's an adjustment the unit has made before, difficult though it may have been.
"It's not like it's the first game that J.V. has been out," safety Roman Harper said. "I've played ball without J.V. but at the same time, I love that guy, he's like an older brother to me. (I have) the most respect (for him) that I've ever had for any other player.
"He's a great leader, he'll definitely be missed. But next man up – we've got to continue to get things rolling. We can't let this hinder us. We'll hug him, we'll give him a kiss on the cheek when we see him but other than that, we've got to go play some ball and win some games."
Even absent on the field, Vilma's presence will be felt.
"Your heart pulls because the idea of what he brings, along with his ability to play, is so much," Payton said. "I don't regret that.
"Bring me as many Jon Vilma's as you can."