WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Just about everything here looks the same as a year ago.
There’s the pristine greenness of the football fields carved out of a hillside with the unspoiled greenness of Kate’s Mountain rising in the background with Interstate 64 dividing them, the fleet of golf carts ready to transport those who perhaps aren’t accustomed to making vertical ascents, and the stands awaiting the fans who will turn out Thursday for the first day of Saints training camp at The Greenbrier.
But it certainly doesn’t feel the same.
Lasta year, great things were expected of the team that came to this golf resort instead of staying home in Metairie for the preseason.
Jimmy Graham had signed the richest-ever deal for a tight end and was considered Canton-bound.
Another sure-fire Canton-bound player, cornerback Champ Bailey was going for one-last hurrah with his new team and would give a physical and emotional boost to a secondary that had already been upgraded with the signing of safety Jarius Byrd.
Fellow future Hall of Famer Drew Brees appeared at the peak of his abilities.
And Junior Galette was about to be rewarded with a big contract extension, and his teammates had voted him a defensive captain.
“Dream Big” was the headline on the team preview story written by my esteemed colleague Nick Underhill.
We could go on.
But you know what happened.
A 7-9 record that featured December losses to division rivals Carolina and Atlanta by a combined 71-24 plus a victory against Tampa Bay that the Saints won because the Buccaneers may have tanked so they could draft Jameis Winston, ended a season when all the Saints had to do to make the playoffs was to break even, yet they couldn’t do it.
And if they had, they’d likely have been an embarrassing one-and-done against a team that deserved to be there.
To make it worse, the causes were as much internal as external.
Good thing Tom Benson won his competency hearing, or things would really be bad right now.
Still, along with the normal fallout from such disappointment exacerbated by the discarding of core players like Graham and Galette has come a perception that a organization that was in the Super Bowl discussion is instead on the decline and no longer has the mojo to reverse things.
That’s not just a fan or media thing, either.
The NFL Network player rankings, done by the players, has just one Saint in the Top 100: Drew Brees at No. 31. This time last year, he was No. 5.
Out in Las Vegas, the team that was fifth choice to win it all in 2014 is now 40-1, tied for 14th with Cincinnati, San Diego and Kansas City.
Have things really gone this sour?
General Manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton were saying “No” to that on Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’re dysfunctional at all,” Loomis said. “There were things that happened last year we didn’t anticipate.
“But I feel good about where we’re at, and I’m excited about the things we’ve done. We’ve got the best coaching staff in the league, and they will evaluate and prepare this team.”
And Payton, going into his 10th season, said his personal confidence is as high as ever.
“It’s difficult any time you get hit in the mouth, and maybe you don’t have the success you have,” he said. “But it also fuels the fire.
“One of the things that motivates people is that fear of not having success.”
And as Loomis pointed out, finding out what kind of team you have is what training camp is for.
But so is the offseason, where the road has been far bumpier than usual and the results somewhat disheartening.
The Graham trade still seems one-sided. At the least, it took away the offense’s No. 1 weapon.
And the cutting of Galette, while seemingly necessary (you keep waiting for another shoe to drop), was a blow to the defense as well as the team’s salary-cap situation for both this year and next.
On Sunday, Underhill listed 15 either/or situations facing the Saints going into training camp. And that didn’t even address the impact of losing Galette.
A lot of those things are going to have to break right for the team to have any chance of a return to glory.
If they don’t, it’s not just going to feel different around here, it’s going to look a lot different here this time next year.