WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — From the moment a freight train rumbling down a nearby railroad track interrupted Saints coach Sean Payton’s opening news conference on July 24, one could tell the team’s portion of training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia would be a colorful one. Here are some of the memorable moments — for good and bad — of the first week the Saints spent preparing for their 2014 campaign in the Allegheny Mountains.
GRAHAM SLAM: After missing the Saints’ offseason practices and minicamp while hammering out the four-year, $40 million contract extension he signed July 15, tight end Jimmy Graham arrived at camp ready to blow off steam over the drawn-out negotiations. That was never more evident than when Graham hauled in a long catch-and-run touchdown on Saturday, which he then punctuated by dunking the football over the field goal’s crossbar, eliciting a raucous cheer from fans in attendance delighted to see the All-Pro’s trademark celebration.
However, unless Graham’s willing to make the Saints eat penalty yardage, that scene shouldn’t be replaying itself much when the meaningful games begin. Officials in 2014 plan to strictly enforce an existing regulation prohibiting the use of the ball as a prop for celebrations. So, get it out of your system, folks.
COOKS LIVING UP TO BILLING: So far, rookie receiver and first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks has caught a pass by leaping and turning around in mid-air; one thrown to his back-shoulder along the sideline; and another in which he held onto the ball in traffic after being decked. All of them were appetizers to the main course he offered up Tuesday: a bubble screen to the left he turned up field at blazing speed to break free for a score of about 50 yards — no one laid a finger on him.
Cooks is displaying all the tools he was supposed to have leaving Oregon State: toughness, hops and — most importantly — quickness that calls to mind the best days in black and gold of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.
HAD TO MAKE HIM PAY: When 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey signed with the Saints in free agency in April, some wondered just how much was left in the 36-year-old to compete for a starting spot. He served notice it could be much more than his doubters believed when he stripped fullback Erik Lorig on Sunday while being stiff-armed, causing a fumble that safety Rafael Bush dove at and tipped toward the field to keep in bounds, allowing Bailey to recover it in arguably the most spectacular play of the first week.
Bailey’s remarks about the play after practice show he’s not in White Sulphur Springs to merely enjoy the cool air and greenery: “I kind of take it personal when a guy sticks his hand in my face. ... I had to make him pay somehow.”
CAMP DARLING: This isn’t 2007, but an undrafted rookie whose first name is Pierre is mounting a serious challenge for a roster spot. Safety Pierre Warren has notched pass break-ups, good coverage and even picked off a tipped ball lining up with the second string. When not doing that, he’s been observing the first team work. If he can keep absorbing what he’s learning, his rookie camp may have the same result running back Pierre Thomas’ did eight seasons ago.
INJURY BUG: The Saints barely got out of the gate before players started falling victim to injuries. The good news is that none of the injury issues were major.
The bad news is that there have been enough to make it a notable story line. Wide receiver Kenny Stills (quad) has not been seen since the first day of practice.
Then, a few days later, wide receiver Robert Meachem went down with a back injury.
Left guard Ben Grubbs has also not practiced the past few days, though Payton maintains the Pro Bowler is being given “veteran’s rest.”
DEADERICK DUD: The writing might have been on the wall when Payton answered an inquiry regarding Brandon Deaderick by replying “who?” and saying the defensive tackle’s best shot to make the team is through special teams.
Deaderick did himself no favors by winning only one of his seven one-on-one battles this week.
But, in his defense, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he was excited about adding Deaderick to the roster.
CB BATTLE: It’s not that there isn’t much competition at cornerback — there is — it’s just that we haven’t seen much movement at that position. Despite making the play of camp, Bailey hasn’t been on the field enough to accurately gauge how much he has left in the tank. And despite a few solid moments, second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste has looked a bit rough around the edges.
However, Keenan Lewis has been one of the bright spots of camp, and showed up Monday by breaking up consecutive passes. Patrick Robinson has also stepped up this week with solid coverage. So, perhaps there is some movement. The problem is that Bailey is spending a lot of time watching it.
RAINY DAY: You know how you know it’s been a good week of camp? The final item on this list is about a thunderstorm and reporters getting drenched while interviewing players. But football was played in the two hours prior to rain falling, so it was still a good day.
ROB RYAN: On why he had bloody bandages on his shins: “A couple pit bulls bit me. You should see the pit bulls. No, actually, they’re probably fine.”
SEAN PAYTON: On taking the conditioning test: “I just didn’t want that sled to be sitting like half way between the sidelines and like five players have to pull it back for the next heat.”
KEENAN LEWIS: On if he was looking forward to wearing pads: “Me? I don’t tackle like that (pause, laughter). Yeah, it’s always great to have the opportunity to let some of your anger out.”