METAIRIE - Midway through the first on-field workout for the New Orleans Saints at their practice facility in nearly seven months on Friday, Drew Brees suddenly realized something.
Brees noted that it didn’t feel like the typical first day back after a long time off, which came about when NFL owners locked down their facilities in March and players all around the league had to fend for themselves.
“It felt like we have been together because, in reality, we have been together,” said Brees, the ringleader for six weeks of organized workouts for his teammates. “We were together for much of May and June, and I feel the work we put in will pay off as we go through camp and get ready for the start of this season.
“That was the whole point,” he said after a steamy, two-hour workout. “Only time will tell, but I feel that way right now.”
Even though the Saints practiced with only 62 players, 18 fewer than they’re accustomed to for the opening of camp, it was a usual up-tempo workout for a Sean Payton-coached team.
“It was the first day, so everybody was out here working out the kinks,” said Brees. “We were excited to get back on the field. You get out in these elements, the heat and humidity, it takes some getting used to.”
Contributing to the low numbers was the fact that unrestricted free agents who have agreed to terms with the club - including a couple they’ve signed from other teams - can’t participate in any physical activities until the NFL Players Association recertifies and players ratify the new collective bargaining agreement next week.
“A lot of young players (were out there) because of the free agency rules,” Brees said. “With that, there is obviously a big learning curve. I thought our work today was really good, and we will get better each day.”
One problem with the smaller roster was that at least two areas of the team - the offensive line and secondary - were extremely thin. Payton had only eight offensive linemen and three safeties available for the practice.
“These one-a-day (practices) are just learning how to practice with each other without any contact,” Payton said. “We do feel the need to condition and make up for lost time, and we cut back some of the reps.”
Still, even though many of his veteran players weren’t on the field, Payton said he could see the difference that the workouts led by Brees and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma - two of his team captains - made.
“There are a number of guys on this team that understand the challenges of playing well and understand the challenges of competing - and becoming a team that will be a threat at the end of the season,” Payton said. “It says a lot for the locker room and for those guys that took it upon themselves.
“I know they planned it for quite a while, and there was a lot that went into it.”
Running back Pierre Thomas, who had ankle surgery last January after playing in just six games last season, was one of the players who couldn’t wait to get training camp up and running.
“We’re working on the right now because we didn’t have the minicamp and the OTAs (organized team activities) this spring,” said Thomas, who signed a new four-year contract with the team before the lockout began. “Because there are a lot of new guys here, we have to get a feel for each other.
“But we still want to play fast and be up-tempo. We have to understand this game is a lot quicker because we don’t have that much time on our hands and have to get a lot of work done in a short period of time.”
Payton said one of the challenges he faced was having almost 20 players on the field that were new to the program. They’ll continue to get a lot of work until the newly-signed veterans return.
Still, he said it was nice to be back on the field with the players.
“It felt good. ? It felt good to get out and have a chance to start coaching and working with them,” Payton said. “I think the players felt the same way. It’s going to take a while, but I thought they handled the heat early on. My concern with the new players was making sure they understood how we practice. But I thought we handled it well.”
Yet, the first day can also be hard on the older players as well.
Brees could only laugh when asked if he knew all the wide receivers.
“No, I don’t ? there are a lot of new guys,” he said. “That’s always the biggest challenge to start a camp. It’s like, ?Hey you, 88, what’s your name again?’ That’s the way it is.
“I’m impressed by those guys coming in because this offense is extensive and what we ask them to do starting on day one is tough. Defensively as well. It’s a steep learning curve, but we try to help those guys along.”