Champion Saints say smooth camp no accident

The defending champion New Orleans Saints have opened training
camp with the look of a team that has it all figured out.

All rookie contracts were signed by the first day of practice.
No one is holding out for more money. Everybody reported without
any significant, season-threatening injuries. No healthy players
have been barred from practice because they couldn’t pass a
conditioning test.

There have been no fisticuffs. The main off-the-field drama –
Reggie Bush’s role in an NCAA report that produced sanctions for
USC – largely played out before camp opened, won’t affect Bush’s
pro career and does not appear to have hurt his local popularity.
There hasn’t been much drama on the field, either.

Are the Saints trying to be boring?

”We are,” quarterback Drew Brees said. ”We’re just trying to
take care of business, let everybody speculate and talk, and come
out ready to play Week 1.”

The headline-grabbing plot twists of the 2010 NFL preseason seem
to be developing anywhere but the Big Easy. There’s been the
contract holdout by New York Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Brett Favre has kept the Minnesota Vikings guessing about their
quarterback situation. The Washington Redskins’ Albert Haynesworth
struggled more than a week to finally pass his conditioning
test.

The Saints have had no such distractions.

”Most championship teams don’t have those issues, especially
the ones that are really serious about trying to collect multiple
Lombardis,” fullback Heath Evans said, referring to the Lombardi
Trophy given to Super Bowl champions. ”That’s kind of what we set
our focus on, and I think the guys have followed (coach Sean
Payton’s) lead and Drew’s lead and said, ‘Hey, listen, let’s cut
the nonsense out.”’

At Saints headquarters in suburban New Orleans, one of the
primary sources of suspense concerns who will hold for kicker
Garrett Hartley on field goals. Pardon the masses of adoring fans
packing open practices if they’re not holding their breath to see
how that turns out.

”This is one of those teams where you can probably say you’ve
got 50 guys you know are going to make this team and maybe there’s
three spots where you’re going to have some battles,” Evans
said.

The Saints have all starters back from last season’s offense.
Only two starters from the defense – linebacker Scott Fujita and
defensive end Charles Grant – are elsewhere, and deciding how to
fill those spots is perhaps the most compelling story line of camp.
Punter Thomas Morstead is entrenched, as is Hartley at kicker.

During training camp a year ago, Hartley faced a looming
suspension stemming from his positive drug test for Adderall, an
amphetamine banned by the NFL. The Saints were forced to sign
kicker John Carney to fill in.

Now Hartley is a playoff star with no competition. As for
Morstead, the only change for him is that he has become one of the
candidates to take over for former Saints backup quarterback Mark
Brunell as the holder on field goals.

Meanwhile, a good bit of the Saints’ roster stability stems from
choices made by several restricted free agents who were unhappy
with their one-year tender offers but after minimal deliberation
went ahead and signed them and kept practicing. Running back Pierre
Thomas, receiver Lance Moore and strong safety Roman Harper all
want more lucrative, multiyear deals, but they’re all back and
keeping quiet about contract talks.

”We’re a special team and a lot of people are seeing a lot of
greatness in us,” Thomas said. ”Just with the character of these
guys, they have the mindset and the determination to be champions,
and when you have that as a group, have that as a team, you’re more
focused. You don’t have guys who want to do the holdout. You got
guys who want to get better. You got guys who want to step up to a
challenge and just try to defend our title.”

Of course, preseason games have yet to begin, and Payton wasn’t
taking the Saints’ general good health for granted.

”I think, knock on wood, that we have been healthier than in
camps past,” the coach said. ”We still have three weeks. Overall,
I have been pleased with that. Guys have been getting the
work.”

NOTES: The Saints had Sunday off. They’re scheduled to travel to
Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet President Barack Obama at the
White House and to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical
Center. The Saints will then continue north to New England, where
they and the Patriots will hold joint practices before they meet in
a preseason game Thursday.