WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — If this offseason was about cleansing the past sins and forgetting all the letdowns and missteps of last season, the Saints aren’t achieving their goal.
It’s an impossible task. People refuse to forget. And each and every day when a player or a coach steps to a microphone to address the media, he’s reminded about how things went wrong last year.
“What’s the vibe?”
“How are things different?”
“Were you guys humbled by last season?”
The answers are always positive. Everything always seems better this time of year. In every training camp in every city, there is a team that feels optimistic about turning things around or maintaining success.
Even when concerns should be plainly obvious, people tend to veer toward the optimistic side of things. Everyone ignores the underbelly until they end up inside of it.
That was the case last offseason. There was only talk of rings and glory. Former Saints great Archie Manning talked about how that roster was the greatest in team history. Jimmy Graham, the tight end, was going to continue to be one of the best players at his position; Drew Brees was going to continue to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL; and Cam Jordan and Junior Galette were going to be the best pass-rushing tandem in the land.
There were no worries and everyone felt good, perhaps even entitled to the trip to Arizona, where they would be handed the Lombardi Trophy for simply showing up. Players talked about it. Bold proclamations were made. Then Marques Colston fumbled away the season opener at Atlanta, setting the stage for hope and optimism to spiral away over the next 16 frustrating and painful weeks.
That’s no longer the case. The vibe is different at this year’s training camp. There is excitement about the upcoming season, but no entitlement. The team is quietly confident, but realistically there should be some concern about how the next several months are going to unfold. It’s impossible for that vision not to develop before unbiased eyes. You can see the wreckage of the offseason and attempts at recovery everywhere you look.
The defense, which finished near the bottom of the league last year, is using new schemes and operating in a more straightforward manner, which runs counter to the perception of Rob Ryan being a mad scientist. There’s a cast of unheralded players taking the majority of the snaps at receiver where Graham and Kenny Stills once stood. Rookies and dreamers are competing for jobs at several other key spots.
In many respects, when juxtaposed to the scene last season, this camp has been most notable for who isn’t here and what isn’t happening. That’s by design. The Saints believe this is the recipe for success.
“You almost have to kind of rewind, start back over, like in ’06 where we’re coming and it’s a clan slate, start fresh, everybody has something to prove and we’re here to compete, we’re here to grind, and don’t take anything for granted,” Brees said.
If there’s a theme for this season, it’s about turning back the clock. As the wreckage of last year’s season was being sorted through after the carnage was calculated, coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis found themselves repeatedly discussing the 2006 season, the first year they had worked together, when creating a blueprint for the future.
What they realized is that over the past decade, things strayed from the ideals they laid out for themselves at the dawn of their era together. The team, personnel and coaching no longer fit those ideals. A strong, fearless effort was needed to get back where Loomis and Payton felt the organization needed to be. That meant getting rid of players who created problems or weren’t fully buying in. It meant taking back control and instilling strong leadership, from top to bottom. In some cases there were innocent casualties and decisions forced by finances, but everything was done with the intention of taking a step forward.
Seeing the process unfold was shocking. As the tweets and headlines hit the wire, there were times when it felt like something was being destroyed. The direction wasn’t always obvious. Losing Graham felt like a death blow. Trading away Stills, who was a rising, cost-controlled asset, didn’t make sense. Taking key role players like Curtis Lofton and Pierre Thomas out of the mix served as additional jabs. The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Galette’s off-field issues outweighed his contributions on it.
As the team worked in silence, there were more questions than answers. Eventually, however, it became clear the team believed it needed to weed out the problems and use their assets to improve a defense that was short on able bodies last season. As a whole, Loomis believes the sum of his moves will help this team achieve a rebirth of sorts and return to the path he and Payton never intended to veer from.
“That was a theme that we talked about early on: getting back to some of those values and some of the processes we had in 2006, treating ourselves like we are starting fresh and new,” Loomis said. “We have to go back and do some things that maybe we assumed were happening in more recent years.”
No one knew what to expect when the 2006 season started. There was a quarterback who was working his way back from a shoulder injury that some expected to end his career. The rookie coach was highly regarded, but he was a rookie. It was also impossible to know that draft would produce pillars of the organizations that still stand today like Colston, offensive tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans.
In this regard, this edition of the Saints is already similar to the one put together for 2006. There is an endless amount of questions to answer. Depending on how those turn out, it’s not hard to envision opposite scenarios where they either end up on top of the NFC South or struggle through the season and miss out on the playoffs in the end.
There aren’t many sure things on the roster outside of Brees, the cornerback tandem of Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner, and perhaps wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Colston. Everything else is either a maybe or a complete question, and none are bigger than Jordan’s ability to replace Galette as the chief pass rusher and Jairus Byrd’s ability to rebound after a disappointing season.
The key to ending up on the right side of the ledger is hoping more of the responses to those questions are positive than negative. Loomis said he isn’t concerned.
“Every year is different and yet it is the same in terms of, you always have question marks,” he said. “I know this: We have hopes and dreams for this team and we’ve got an opportunity, over these next weeks, to evaluate and prepare our club for this season, and I am confident.”
Last season might have been a blessing. If the Saints would have managed to sneak into the playoffs out of the weak NFC South, there’s a good chance that Loomis and Payton would have spent the offseason trying to patch together any leaks and would have continued to move forward with last year’s roster mostly intact. They never would have sat down and had an honest conversation about the organization forgetting about the ideals that served it so well for so long.
Maybe things would have worked out. There was a lot of talent on that team. But chances are the lack of leadership and infighting and other distractions that blinded New Orleans’ vision would have remained a fatal flaw. At some point, even when it felt like things were going well, the underbelly would have been exposed.
Those kinds of things don’t remain hidden for long, in good times and bad.
The Saints might have assembled a roster with a lot of questions, but it’s filled with the kind of questions the team would rather have. The organization would rather wonder if a rookie like Anthony will develop to the point where he can serve as the starting linebacker or if Dannell Ellerbe will benefit from a move from middle linebacker to outside linebacker than if the roster can withstand the negative things Galette brought to the locker room.
This is a team, they believe, that has character and is built to handle adversity. These are guys that love football, are tough, and care about the right things. And those that remain from last season are hungry for success.
“Shoot, anytime you get hit in the mouth and maybe you don’t have the success that you expect to have, it fuels the fire,” Payton said.
If you have to go into the season with a team looking to answer a bunch of questions, it’s better to do it with a group of guys starving to eat than ones who are expecting to be served.