WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The New Orleans Saints wrapped up their third straight training camp at The Greenbrier on Wednesday, bidding goodbye to the tree-covered mountains of West Virginia for their return to the heat, humidity and thunderstorms of the Gulf Coast, first against the Texans in Houston this weekend and then back home in Metairie.
Now, the question is whether or not the Saints will be back.
The three-year contract the Saints signed with The Greenbrier Resort expires after this season. According to The Associated Press, the Saints and The Greenbrier owner Jim Justice have discussed an open-ended extension that would require either side to give a two-year notice to end the agreement, but no deal has been struck yet.
Saints coach Sean Payton made it clear he's hoping Wednesday wasn't his last practice in West Virginia.
"I just think it gives you a real secluded environment, which I think for a period of time, in today's game, it gives you all the things you're looking for from a teaching standpoint," Payton said. "I still look at camp as getting away and being able to put a key around a shoelace. I like that about it."
Justice made it clear he wants the Saints to return.
When the deal was originally struck, Justice and The Greenbrier built a $30 million training complex, complete with two grass football fields, a turf field and a state-of-the-art training facility to fit the Saints' needs.
Back before training camp began, Justice said there were as many as five NFL teams willing to take the Saints' place in the facility if New Orleans decided to end its partnership with The Greenbrier, but the coal magnate-turned-gubernatorial candidate also made it clear he wants the Saints to make West Virginia their long-term home, particularly after the Saints decided to keep training camp in West Virginia this year despite catastrophic flooding that struck Greenbrier County in late June.
"It would be an enormous disappointment to me and the people of West Virginia if they don't come back, compounded by this terrible disaster we've had," Justice told The Associated Press. "It has been a tremendous economic boost for West Virginia and a tremendous morale and spiritual boost for the people — especially now."
All of the goodwill between the two parties hasn't produced an agreement yet.
"We’ll evaluate our experience. I haven’t even thought about that, to be honest with you, because that’s a year to year thing we will evaluate," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said before camp began in late July. "Ultimately, it comes down to what gives us the best chance to be successful and prepare our team."
Fifteen years ago, getting away from home was the norm. According to NFL records, 26 of the 31 training camps were held off-site, but as team's home training facilities improved, more and more teams started staying home. By 2005, 15 of 32 teams were staying home. And in 2016, 19 of the 32 teams held training camp at their home facilities. Two of the teams that hit the road have unusual circumstances: the Green Bay Packers train at St. Norbert College, which is only five miles away from Lambeau Field, and the Rams chose UC-Irvine in part because they just moved to Los Angeles and the team's headquarters hasn't been built yet.
"Camp at home is all about comfort," ESPN's Matt Bowen, a former safety with the Rams, Packers, Redskins and Bills, said. "Players get to use their own weight room, training room and all the other first-class facilities. There are positives to that. For example, when I was a rookie with the Rams, we had camp at Western Illinois University. The weight room? The team built one in part of a gym and some of the equipment was outside — in the heat. Nasty. Meetings? In lecture halls. And no plush hotel rooms. We stayed in the dorms. Old school. So in short, you lose those comforts of the team facility, the stuff you take for granted on a daily basis during the regular season. But in my opinion, the best environment for camp is away from home."
For some teams, a training camp location is tradition. Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota have all been training in the same place for more than 50 years.
New Orleans, on the other hand, has always been something of a nomadic franchise for camp, finding a new home every couple of years. The longest the Saints stayed in one spot was an 11-year stretch when New Orleans trained at UW-La Crosse in Wisconsin, part of the "Cheese League" featuring teams flooding Wisconsin and Minnesota to take advantage of cooler weather.
Former Saints star Deuce McAllister practiced in three camp locations — at Nicholls State, at home in Metairie and in Jackson, Miss. — in eight seasons with the Saints.
"If you're a veteran player, you prefer to be at home, because normally you have a family," McAllister said. "With a young team, you want to get them away so they can focus on learning the game of football and learning their teammates."
Tucked away in the mountains, 887 miles from the team's training complex in Metairie, The Greenbrier provides that sort of old-school seclusion, and it gets the Saints out of the kind of crushing humidity that makes staying hydrated difficult in the early days of camp.
"This facility is very conducive to getting your team ready to play," Payton said. "It allows the players to have that focus, and eliminates a lot of the distractions. Even on their off days, these guys are together. They're over here getting treatment, they're eating together, and I like that."
Holding training camp at a luxury resort has prompted a vocal segment of the Saints fan base to wonder if life at The Greenbrier is too cushy for the team, particularly after two 7-9 finishes.
Former NFL players believe placing that kind of blame on a training camp location is misguided.
"Even with the Saints traveling to a facility that fans view as 'cushy,' it's still camp away from home," Bowen said. "You lose that comfort level. You are more focused. And really, it’s up to the head coach. Sean Payton runs a physical camp. The Saints are one of the few teams that go “live” in practice. That’s football. Make it hard. It’s camp. This isn’t supposed to be easy. Or fun."
If training camps have gotten easier over the years, it's because of CBA rules that restrict the hitting in practices, a trend that reaches leaguewide. Worried about injury, most NFL coaches are dialing back the live hitting in training camps.
Payton headed in the opposite direction this August. New Orleans held live hitting sessions on an almost daily basis, and national writers like Bowen and Pro Football Focus noted how physical the Saints' sessions have been.
"It's on the coaches and staff on how tough they're going to make a practice or how hard they're going to work guys," McAllister said. "That's always going to be on the coach and what they do."
More importantly, there are so many other factors in a season — acquisition of talent, how a team handles injuries, coaching, chemistry — that wins and losses simply can't be attributed to a training camp's location.
"This game is still about blocking, tackling and execution," Bowen said. "Putting the blame on a camp location for a poor season is an excuse. You can practice on the moon if you execute on game days."
NFL teams that hold training camp at home give fans more opportunities to see teams in the preseason. Although some Saints fans have made the pilgrimage to The Greenbrier over the past three seasons, the crowds in West Virginia don't match the thousands that show up in New England, Denver or Green Bay.
For that reason, the Saints have kept practices open after returning to Metairie, even though most of the rest of the NFL closes its practices to the public after the second preseason game.
"I do think that the business side of our building does a great job of making sure that we are connecting with the fans. But I think that is going to exist whether we have training camp here or away," Loomis said in January. "We came back and had a practice at Tulane. I thought that was fantastic. We loved it, and that was a good way for the Uptown crowd to come out and see the Saints. We went out to Mandeville a few years ago. We’ve been out in Destrehan. I think we’d like to do more of that if we can, because I think that going to these areas of the community is good for them and is good for us."
For the moment, momentum seems to be on The Greenbrier's side. Both coaches and players have raved about The Greenbrier experience, and the White Sulphur Springs community has embraced the team.
But Loomis has also said repeatedly that he likes to do something different to change it up every couple of years. What the Saints will decide is still up in the air.
"I’m sure there will be a decision point,' Loomis said. "We’ll make it in plenty of time. Not right now."
SAINTS TRAINING CAMP LOCATIONS
|1967-1969||Cal Western||San Diego, Calif.|
|1970||Bowling Green||Bowling Green, Ohio|
|1971-1973||Southern Miss||Hattiesburg, Miss.|
|1974||Dodgertown||Vero Beach, Fla.|
|1975||Nicholls State||Thibodaux, La.|
|1976-1984||Dodgertown||Vero Beach, Fla.|
|1985||Louisiana Tech||Ruston, La.|
|1986-1987||Southeastern Louisiana||Hammond, La.|
|1988-1999||University of Wisconsin-La Crosse||La Crosse, Wis.|
|2000-2002||Nicholls State||Thibodaux, La.|
|2003-2005||Saints Training Facility||Metairie, La.|
|2006-2008||Millsaps College||Jackson, Miss.|
|2009-2013||Saints Training Facility||Metairie, La.|
|2014-2016||The Greenbrier Resort||White Sulphur Springs, W.V.|
NFL teams training away from home
|Buffalo Bills||St. John Fisher College||Pittsford, N.Y.|
|Indianapolis Colts||Anderson University||Anderson, Ind.|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Missouri Western State||St. Joseph, Mo.|
|Miami Dolphins||Baptist Health Training Facility||Davie, Fla.|
|Oakland Raiders||Napa Valley Training Complex||Napa, Calif.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Saint Vincent College||Latrobe, Pa.|
|Carolina Panthers||Wofford College||Spartanburg, S.C.|
|Chicago Bears||Olivet Nazarene University||Bourbonnais, Ill.|
|Dallas Cowboys||River Ridge Playing Fields||Oxnard, Calif.|
|Green Bay Packers*||St. Norbert College||De Pere, Wis.|
|Los Angeles Rams**||University of California-Irvine||Irvine, Calif.|
|Minnesota Vikings||Minnesota State||Mankato, Minn.|
|Washington Redskins||Bon Secours Training Center||Richmond, Va.|