Let me see if I have this right. Ray Lewis gone for the season and Jonathan Vilma is returning to action? Sounds like a plot lifted from some campy science fiction show whereby there’s this alternate universe where two specific people cannot occupy the same dimension at once. If one enters, then one must leave.

That’s the only way to explain it. That’s the only way it makes sense. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Vilma on the sideline, clad in black t-shirt, exhorting his teammates. This scene is the residue of this interminable bounty investigation.

I’ve said this before and it bears repeating because it is the crux of the Jonathan Vilma conversation. Every time you hit someone you do it as hard as you possibly can. There isn’t a time when you do it a little harder or make a tackle a bit more sure. If the one you hit doesn’t get up? That’s the inherent risk of the trade.

Jonathan Vilma is formally charged with funding a bounty to take Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC Championship Game. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Most career-threatening injuries occur below the waist. If there is evidence of the Saints defenders purposely hitting Favre below the waist then I’ll jump in with all the requisite righteous indignation.

US PresswireJonathan Vilma could soon trade his sideline attire for a uniform.

I appreciate Mr. Goddell’s dilemma. Bounties are bad for business, much like concussions are bad for business. The casual fan is in the business of illusion. He/she needs to see this game in the soft light of altered reality—one that smooths the wrinkles and blemishes.

Flaws are bad for business. Villains must be identified and put in their place. For the past six weeks, Jonathan Vilma has been in time out, appropriately dressed all in black. That scene is congruent with the charge.

But last Sunday’s scene from the Baltimore sideline was painfully odd. The Ravens defense was valiantly trying to make itself stout while the baffling Cowboys mounted a methodical drive in the closing minutes. But Ray Lewis stood and watched, strangely forlorn. Ray Lewis doesn’t do forlorn. Every few minutes he would weakly flex his torn triceps muscle, as if to remind himself and us why he wasn’t in the middle.

The middle linebacker has always been referred to as the “quarterback of the defense.”But until recently the comparison was limited to proximity and communication—he lined up in the middle of the field and he was the only one who spoke in the huddle.

Dick Butkus was the original middle linebacker. No, he wasn’t the first guy to play the position, he was just the first one to capitalize on the mystique associated with it. The mystique was etched in violent temperament. Butkus was known as a remorseless presence, hitting everything that moved.

Both on and off the field, Butkus wore a scowl. It was his trademark. When he retired he took the scowl to every casting couch he could and it garnered him roles in everything from Disney movies to long-running sitcoms.

Ray Lewis added another dimension to the middle linebacker position. Technically, in the 3-4 scheme, Lewis is an inside linebacker. But he assumes all the duties of a middle backer. He was the Baltimore Ravens’ unquestioned leader. It didn’t matter who the Ravens quarterback was. It didn’t really matter who the coach was. It’s always been Lewis’ team. Over the past sixteen years, he’s become one of the league’s statesmen.

These days he appears in a Visa commercial with a little girl speaking of puppies and such. Of course that role is much easier for Lewis to pull off now.

The younger, more explosive Ray Lewis personified a version of football now considered part of some taboo society. On a Monday Night game against Denver, Lewis threw a block. Chris McAlister returned a missed field goal 107 yards for a score. As McAlister turned the corner, Lewis crept up on Broncos linebacker Keith Burns, sized him up, and then carefully sent him airborne. Burns’ head hit the ground before his feet did.

The most substantial part of the play wasn’t the raw violence required to execute it. And it was very raw and very violent. It was our reaction to it. The Ravens led 24-3 at the time. The play was largely meaningless and the block unnecessary. We ate it up, though. It was Ray Lewis at his best—selflessly assisting a teammate by doing whatever was needed for the moment.

That play was identical to the one Seattle receiver Golden Tate made on Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee a few weeks ago. It was a crack back block. It got us all worked up and led to discussion about the appropriate punishment for Tate. After some deliberation he was fined $21,000.

That’s just a sign of the times. The fantasy movement has so usurped the game that any play that cannot be gleefully staticized must be hastily demonized. The middle linebacker position has changed some since Butkus played. Most guys are quicker and more complete athletes, but the basic premise remains—to hit people really hard. The most dramatic change is our perception of it.

Jonathan Vilma is a good middle linebacker. He’s “heady,” for lack of a better term. Funny how that part is lost in this conversation. Before all this talk of less than wholesome incentive programs, Vilma was known for making key and timely audibles at the line of scrimmage.

He would lean over the center and listen to the quarterback’s last second instructions to the offensive line. It wasn’t just he listened to the quarterback Vilma made it a point to let the quarterback know he was listening to him. He even did it to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV.

Because of all this I have trouble with the portrait of him as some corrosive agent out to ruin the game. Maybe it’s just me, and it probably is, but I think a young man who effectively uses his faculties to excel at a position that isn’t the quarterback position is hard for some folks to process. Football players, like everyone else, are assigned specific roles and one’s personality should reflect his role. When the two don’t match, it’s like our water dish has been moved.

Vilma never cut the larger than life figure Ray Lewis did.  He’s actually kind of “scrappy”—not a term often used on black athletes. But in the ongoing investigation of his “character,” Vilma the middle linebacker has been cast as monster.

For me a monster looks and sounds like George Hinkley. Remember him? He’s the big, strapping, handsome lacrosse player who beat his girlfriend to death in a dormitory on the Virginia campus. He’s a monster.

Jonathan Vilma not so much. But people don’t care about lacrosse. They care about football. They care about its violent properties. They care about children who watch the game.

Maybe it helps to see the game as children, too. If we close our eyes, the bad stuff will cease to exist. The bad people, too. We can wish them away to some alternate universe, like in that show, The Land of the Lost.

I liked that show as a kid.

Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL