New Orleans Saints Linebacker Jonathan Vilma
Legends Video Call with New Orleans Media
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Can you talk about how your new deal as a FOX analyist came to fruition?
"It started at Super Bowl time down here in Miami (in February). I met with Brad (Zager), (and) some of their other higher administration guys and we were just talking briefly about calling games. I told them that I had called games before (college and 2019 Saints preseason). I also told them that I really enjoyed my time at ESPN. I told them that my time at ESPN never felt like work. They told me they'd reach out in March and then of course COVID-19 happened so that got pushed back a little bit. They actually had me do the interview via Zoom which was interesting. I had to call a whole (NFL) game via Zoom. Fortunately, I've had previous experience calling games. They really liked my interview and at that point I was really torn between staying at ESPN or going to FOX. I think FOX sold me on the idea of being able to just talk ball for three hours. They know I am a student of the game, I like watching film, I enjoy breaking down the X's and O's of the game. They said if (I) really like that and that's what you enjoy then why don't you come over here and do it for three hours a day (on gameday) as opposed to 10 minutes at a halftime of ESPN or for maybe 20 to 30 minutes on one of the debate shows (like) Get Up or First Take. I thought about it, spoke with my family and it felt like the right decision. I enjoy challenges, this is another challenge and they welcomed me with open arms so that's how FOX came about."
What was the process like calling a game on Zoom? Was it like a weird situation for you just trying to feel comfortable doing that?
"It was definitely different because you don't get the energy from your partner. You will know when your partner wants to say something or your partner wants to interject or if your partner is just mum on something and you can kind of keep going. Kevin Burkhardt was my partner for the interview and that was probably the hardest part. I wasn't able to get the vibe or get any energy off of him, read his body language. Fortunately, Kevin, he's awesome. You guys have heard him before, he's awesome at calling games so he made it very easy for me. That was probably the biggest difference. I look forward to actually doing it live with somebody and actually being able to interact in person when it's time to call games."
Are you able to tell us which game it was you were calling?
"That's a good question, I don't know if I'm allowed to tell. Let's hold off on that one. I do not know if I'm allowed to tell on that one."
Was it something where you had some advanced knowledge of what game it was going to be?
"No. That was the other interesting part. They did not tell me until the day before what game it was going to be. I had, let's call it 24 hours to watch the film, make sure I know the players, get the injury report of that time. The thing I did not do was watch that game. I watched the previous film from both opponents prior to that. As I said, I'm a student of the game so that's really all I needed. I just needed time to watch a few games of the teams, of their previous opponents, understand their schemes and then go from there."
Is there a broadcast analyst in the industry that you've idolized and taken advice from through the years?
"That is a good one. I really watched Kirk Herbstreit. I watched him from my playing days at UM and he used to come down for gameday when (the University of) Miami actually had a legitimate (championship-contending) team. It was always fun talking with him back then because you can tell he's passionate about college football, he's passionate about the sport and a true fan of the game and the players. So I watched his career and then as he's evolved from not just gameday, but to calling games for the Saturday Night games. I was in studio for those Saturday Night games and I always made it a point to watch him. More about his delivery, more about his tempo, the way he's able to explain things very clearly, very smooth in his delivery and his approach and then for the short time he's on camera for a halftime or pregame, I like to watch his body language as well. I think Kirk has done a tremendous job. I think he's really grown into that role as he's gotten older. I think he's gotten better. You can tell he's still wanting to learn the game and understand kind of this new age offense, new age defense in college sports. I've watched him a lot. I really like him in his job."
What was it like stepping into the booth for the first time where you have to be on the ball and analyzing things that are happening in real time?
"It honestly was like (back when) I was sitting with my linebacker buddies and we were watching film on a Tuesday getting ready for a Wednesday practice or on Wednesday getting ready for a Thursday practice. That's what it felt like. You are up there, see what is going on and I would, when we were watching film, if it is with the linebackers, alright guys we are going to looking at X, Y and Z. Did you see that running back? Did you see his footwork? Do you see his steps? Did you see that O-lineman pull and the receivers and the catchers? Watching the game now is pretty easy now where I feel like I'm just talking to my linebackers. When I first called a game it was, this is what I'm seeing and based off of what I'm seeing this is probably what's going to happen and this is what the OC (offensive coordinator) is looking at. You start looking at the matchups and the players. I would always talk about respecting the "phenoms". You can't disrespect the "phenom" players. The first game I called, who was it, it was a smaller game, but there was a linebacker there who was really, really good. He got drafted in the second round. I was talking about, just to give you an example, live on air, they needed to account for him because he's a really, really good player. You can't just disrespect him and not think he's going to make all the tackles in the game. I just take that approach when I'm calling a game, I look for the really good players. I like to focus on the good of the players and talk about the tremendous athletes that they are and then talk about the scheme and go."
Did it take a quarter, did it take a half, did it take multiple games to kind of learn the dynamic between you and the play-by-play of letting the play breathe a little bit, when to talk, when to not talk, when to let them go for a little bit, how long of an adjustment period was that?
"That was not as much of an adjustment as you think because I asked all those questions that you just said Caroline (Gonzalez), I asked ahead of time. I was told in-between plays is my real estate, during the play that's their (play-by-play) real estate. For home games, when there's a crowd and they're really cheering, let that breath for a little bit. Really, really good plays, the crowd is cheering, let that breathe, touchdown, stuff like that. That was kind of easy. I always say, it's their show. I'm just there along for the ride. I just talk ball so if they have something to say, they want to keep going, be my guest, we're here for three hours. I don't have to always feel the need to speak and talk about every little thing that happens. Sometimes you just let it go."
Has being an in-game, in-booth analyst always been something you wanted to do or when did this kind of start for you?
"To answer the first part, no it wasn't something I always wanted to do. Not in a bad way, I had just never thought about it. When it came about was, my first game I called was the UM (Miami) versus UNC (North Carolina) college game. It was a Thursday Night game and I remember I watched all the film and all that stuff then I was calling the game and before I knew it it was halftime. I was like damn, it only felt like ten minutes, that was kind of fun, I like it. Then the game ends and after the game I'm sitting there and my agent asked me and my bosses back at ESPN had asked me how I liked it and I sat and really thought about it and that was really a lot of fun. It was really enjoyable and it was because I got to finally speak at length about all the stuff that I see on film and then you see it come to fruition in the game and then be able to explain it. Like I said, it's like talking to my buddies, like I'm talking to my buddy linebackers for three hours about the game. I like that. I like that a lot. That's probably the first time where I really sat there and said if there is an opportunity down the road for calling games, I would definitely entertain it."
As a linebacker, as a student of the game, when you watch Demario Davis, what are some of the things that stand out to you?
"Well, first Demario's size. He's a big boy, he's about 6-3, about 240 (pounds), probably carries himself around 250 then comes down to 240 when he plays. His size and speed, especially in this era of football where it is like smaller players and speed, he stands out with his size and his range, ability to cover ground, very, very smart player. I don't think he gets enough credit for being as smart as he is as a player and frankly I wish and hope that Dennis Allen and Sean (Payton) give him a little more rope to really have reign over that defense and start to check in and out of defenses, especially when he sees stuff. When I watch him I can tell, instinctually, he knows what's happening and sometimes he's allowed to check out and sometimes he's not, but his ability, his size and speed and his smarts for the game they really stand out. You can tell he's a very smart player."
I know it hasn't been that long, but how much different is the game today from when you played? You mentioned the differences in the eras and it seems like it's evolving pretty quickly?
"It really is. When I first got into the league back in '04, you still had fullbacks. You had the blocking tight end, teams thought nothing of it to go with two tight ends, (one) fullback and one running back in the game and then try to beat your head in in the running game. My knock getting drafted was I was too small. That was kind of the era I got drafted in and then I slowly started to see one, the bigger, brawly linebackers getting phased out. You started to see smaller, rangier linebackers and it was because on the flip side you had the running backs now that were smaller, quicker, shifty running backs. Once it started to evolve, I don't think it's changed much except that there's a premium on speed. Before, there wasn't as much of a premium on speed except for a few teams and I think now all the team's OCs and even on the defensive side, they value speed so much that they're willing to take smaller guys, take a safety, shift him down to linebacker just so that they can have speed at that position."
Has there been any adjustment on how you present things because obviously the role of a color analyst's to articulate the game in a way that fans can understand, but obviously your top terminology's so much different than what maybe the regular fan can understand. So has there been any adjustment of holding yourself back a little bit and then explaining things the way the fans can understand?
"Yes, there's a big adjustment because I have to remember at the end of the day, no matter how much I know and try to show everybody how much I know about the game, the fans do not care. That is just the truth. The fans want to know what is going on in the game, (have it) explain(ed) it to them as simply as possible and then let them enjoy the game. They don't want to hear me break down every single play and the little nuances. They don't care, they're fans, right? I equate it when I watch a basketball game, I don't want to watch a basketball game and then somebody tells me all the little things that are going on. Like if a guy scores 40, he scores 40. He's a pretty good player to me, I don't care what you say. So I try to make sure that I don't bog down the fans with too much of the technical stuff, keep it entertaining, keep it fun, let them enjoy the game."
Where do you think this 2020 Saints team ranks talent wise to some of the great Saints teams in the past you were on?
"They're up there. If you go position by position, I' have our 2011 team up there. I think our 2011 team was offensively and defensively tops. I think the Saints team that went to the NFC championship they were pretty talented. I think they were a little light on the d-line, but still really, really good. When I say d-line, really the defensive tackle position. But really, really good man, the running backs, offensively I think they were probably a receiver short. We had at that time (Robert) Meachem, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, (Marques) Colston, (Jeremy) Shockey, no we didn't have Shockey, we had Jimmy Graham. We had more weapons offensively, they did have (Alvin) Kamara and Mark Ingram at that time. They were a pretty damn good duo. We had Pierre Thomas at that time. I still would put our 2011 up there (at the top) and then probably the 2018 team that went to the NFC championship, I'd put them at two. The others we could argue about it later on."
What more can Demario Davis and this defense do to try and become a top five defense in the NFL?
"Turnovers, they have to create more turnovers. They're really good, really stout. Last year they did not take the ball away at an alarming rate and I know Dennis (Allen) preaches it. I know he did back when I was playing. So that would be the knock on the defense right now. They have to create turnovers. If they created just an extra turnover a game, I know it sounds easy, but it's not. Imagine putting Drew Brees and that offense (back on the field) and giving them an extra possession. That's the way you literally put a game away. You turn the ball over and let Drew and them score real quick and now it's a 17-point lead or a 14-point lead and the game's done. So turnovers would be the thing."
Do you have a go too or favorite Sean Payton story?
"I guess you guys must have heard of how Sean Payton turns Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I think that's the saying. Where he is cool, calm and collected all during the week and then turns into this big badass on Sunday and he's trying to fight everyone. He is like Mr. tough guy. I remember in 2008 I just got there and I had not seen this other side of Sean on Sundays until we got a defensive stop and scored a touchdown. It was against Atlanta at home and he comes over like a big badass and is like I want another turnover, give me the ball back, give me the ball back. I was like who is this guy, what's going on. We go out there and we actually got another turnover and he has that like big strut when he walks around and has that little face going. I go over there and I push him and I'm like what's up now! He looked at me and he was at first was surprised, then he got back into his mode like I told you to get the ball back. That was the first time I ever dealt with the other Sean. I call him the other Sean or Mr. tough guy, but having him as a coach like that is awesome. Because you always want someone with a chip on their shoulder and you know he's passionate about the game."
Does your daughter know you more as an analyst or a football player?
"Yeah, it is true and it sucks. I have a ten-year old and she does not remember anything about where I played. All she remembers is doing touchdown dances and stuff (laughter). I was like do you even remember my number and she was like, ugh, I think it was like 51, right daddy? I was like ugh. I showed her some games when I played a UM (Miami) and she is looking and she was like that is you and she was like oh okay, can we change it? I was like damn, you do not even care. She does not remember and it definitely sucks. I wish at this age she would have seen me play, but it's all good."
Could this 2020 Saints team compete with the 2011 offense, when you look at the addition of Emmanuel Sanders?
"Yeah man, Emmanuel Sanders is good. He is good. I watched him probably four times last year with San Fran and then I watched him just to see the matchups before they played the Saints. I like him man. He is really, really good. I would out him a notch above Lance Moore, when you think about a possession receiver, but he's a little more shifty and has a little more burst and a little size to him. Maybe the same size, but I think he is tremendous."
What do you think would be the hardest part for Zack Baun to play in space compared to the edge in college?
"His issue will be angles and not to get too technical, but when you're on the ball everything is kind of flat down the line, right. You kind of just make sure you maintain the wall and then everything goes away from you or if someone comes back you stay there and hold your ground. When you're off the ball your angles are a little different. You've got to get downhill more and be able to quote unquote setup a wall or whatever you want to get done. As opposed to just going flat. So that would probably be the way he has to enter into plays, to make tackles or set the wall and things of that nature. Once he gets used to that he'll be fine."
Have you thought about what it would be like as a player going through this pandemic and how would you approach it?
"I would have had to buy some weights at home. Because everyone's body is different, for me, my body I would get smaller if I didn't lift weights. If I needed that size or that muscle and I would get my whole gym setup in my home and then I'd have to figure out how to get my cardio in. That's probably the hardest part for the players getting into football shape and if you can't get into football shape you really have no chance. I would have had to gotten with strength training coach Dan Dalrymple. I would have to get with him to really map out a cardio plan, knowing that I'm going to stay in shape as far as my muscle, my muscle mass up, but the cardio part would have been hard. That is one thing I really, really worry about for the players. Because you get a lot of injures when you are out of football shape. It's not just being out of shape and you're tired, it's you pull a muscle and putting strain on your muscle and it is not conditioned for the stress that you are putting it under. Then you start to pull hammies, quads and these are things that happen. Then when you're tired and lazy in your technique. So now you're talking about full contact and if someone is tired and they enter a play wrong and a god forbid they hurt themselves or hurt their shoulder or neck, things like that. Those are things I'm concerned about knowing that not all the players have had the discipline to keep themselves in some sort of shape."
As far as coming back to a facility, would you have felt comfortable doing that just knowing that the virus is still a thing right now?
"Yeah, I would have been fine. If the NFL has created a plan to make, let's call it workable, to make it workable then I would be fine with that. I would anticipate that everyone is going to be cautious and not only practice social distancing when we can, assuming that we're playing and practicing, but also wearing the masks and then being mindful of their surroundings outside of the office or outside of the practice field. It's not like you're dealing with 18-year-old kids, you're dealing with adults that have kids and this is their livelihood. I would imagine that everyone is going to take this seriously and if I go back I would anticipate everyone is going to be as serious as I am about our health and our safety."
The Saints had 51 sacks last year with a banged up Sheldon (Rankins) a banged up Marcus Davenport. I know you spent a lot of your career getting the D-Line lined up into their positions at times, how good can Cam (Jordan) and the rest of the defensive line be if they're fully healthy?
"It would be the first time in a long time that I can recall that, I don't think there ever was a time with the Saints that, oh no there was once, there was one year where you could say that the strength of the defense is the D-Line. I am a big believer that championships are won in the trenches so if you have a legitimate defensive line like the Saints could have potentially, the defensive line is the one that gets you out of a bad defense with a sack or a tackle for loss or things like that or getting pressure. If the strength of the defense is the defensive line and then you still have guys like (Marshon) Lattimore and Demario Davis, etc. that's a recipe for a long run in the playoffs, hopefully a Super Bowl."
With all the uncertainty with the pandemic and whatnot, who knows what the stadiums are going to look like, has that crossed your mind as you're getting ready to call this season?
"Crossed my mind in what sense? As in I need to be worried?"
No, more so that you could be in a stadium that's half empty or fully empty or you won't have the crowd reactions and a situation that you're maybe not used to.
"Yeah, I've thought about it a little bit and candidly speaking, all my thoughts have been selfish from the perspective of, well, if they're not here that means they have to watch me on TV (laughter). I've kind of looked at it that way. I just left it at that and then was kind of like, alright well, I'd love to have the crowd and the energy of the game, but it's not so bad. They have to watch me on TV now."
As a player, can you pick up a lot on stuff that the offense is saying and crack their code if there is no noise at all?
"Oh hell yeah. I'd love that. It's like practice against Drew Brees for 17 weeks. It would be so awesome if there was no fans in the stadium and I get to sit there and listen to everything the quarterback says the whole time. For the young quarterbacks, it's too easy because they can't get in and out if stuff, but the older quarterbacks they might mess with you a little bit, but I'll just stand there and listen just like this."