As the New Orleans Saints struggled to a 7-9 record and exclusion from the playoffs in 2014, at least some critics couldn’t resist tracing the mediocrity of the team New Orleans fielded to where it spent most of its preseason training camp: The Greenbrier, a luxury golf resort.
The temperatures were mild and the air was cool at the site, situated in the Allegheny Mountains of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Some outsiders surmised the camp made the team too soft, and that was fatal when the Saints failed to close out four games that they lost late — defeats that contributed to the demise of New Orleans’ postseason chances.
Saints coach Sean Payton has never entertained that notion. And Monday, a day after the Saints won their season finale at Tampa Bay 23-20, Payton didn’t break character, saying it’d be “almost an excuse” to re-evaluate the decision to hold training camp at The Greenbrier through at least 2016.
“I think the trick is making sure … ‘Are we just changing to change?’ ” Payton said in a news conference. “Smart, disciplined, tough — that environment can exist anywhere.
“What’s important is ... that we’re not fixing something that wasn’t part of the problem.”
As he did all season, Payton blamed factors such as an ineffective defense and a turnover-prone offense as things that prevented the Saints from winning consistently. The Saints would not overcome such shortcomings no matter where training camp was, Payton contended.
That may not satisfy any Saints fans who are disgruntled because of 2014. However, in the months after having training camp at a place where there was no indoor facility, the Saints won as many games outdoors (four) as they did in the 2012 and 2013 regular season combined.
High praise for Hill
Payton was in no mood Monday to discuss which of his assistants or players would move forward with his organization — but he did make one exception.
That was second-year tight end Josh Hill, who improbably was tied for No. 2 on the Saints in touchdown receptions with five and topped New Orleans in special-teams tackles with 10 (eight solo).
Hill had just six total catches and got in on a lone special-teams tackle in 2013, when he was an undrafted rookie out of Idaho State. That was among a smattering of positive topics discussed at team headquarters, the first day of New Orleans’ offseason.
“He’s exactly what we’re looking for, because each week you know exactly what you’re going to get,” Payton said. “He’s talented, … (was) consistent, and those are things that allow you to win.”
Hill is far from the most vocal player in the Saints’ locker room, but he took a minute Monday to reflect on the season he had personally.
He said if he’d been told in his second season as a pro he’d have as many touchdown catches as did Marques Colston, who owns all of New Orleans’ major receiving records, he would’ve replied, “(There’s) no way; not a chance.”
“It’s kind of crazy how it worked out — I didn’t have a lot of catches but I had a lot of touchdowns,” said Hill, who had nine receptions this year that didn’t go for scores. He was equally proud of his production on special teams. He didn’t often handle those duties in his pre-Saints career, when he was primarily a pass-catching tight end in a spread offense.
“Playing special teams for two years in a row now … I think the experience (accumulated) helped me a lot,” Hill said.
Payton called the combination of skills Hill possessed in 2014 “rare.”
“When you get a tight end that potentially is going to be your special-teams player of the year, that’s a good thing,” Payton said.
If Wesley McGriff is leaving his post as the Saints’ secondary coach to become the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, he hadn’t talked about it with his boss Monday.
FootballScoop.com reported Sunday that Vanderbilt planned to hire McGriff — in his second season with the Saints — as its defensive coordinator. A day later, Payton said he wasn’t aware if that was the case.
“I heard that report, (and) I’m unaware of any of that, but knowing Wesley, he and I will talk,” Payton said.
After winning Sunday’s finale at Tampa Bay, the Saints ranked No. 25 in pass defense, having allowed 251.2 yards per game. They permitted opposing quarterbacks to post a combined passer rating of 92.9, which was the ninth highest in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Saints on Monday signed seven players who finished the season on the practice squad to their expanded roster for the upcoming offseason, according to the NFL.
They were running back Edwin Baker, center Michael Brewster, tight end Orson Charles, kicker Dustin Hopkins, guard Andrew Miller, fullback Toben Opurum and wide receiver Willie Snead. A player on the Saints’ 10-man practice squad toward the end of the season but not signed to the expanded offseason roster Monday was tackle Tavon Rooks, a 2014 sixth-round draft selection. No explanation was given regarding Rooks’ situation.