At this time last year, New Orleans Saints players were peppered with media questions about whether they could avoid the “Super Bowl hangover” that tends to sicken some defending champions.
As it turned out, the Saints avoided many of the headaches caused by overconfidence and living in the past. But that still didn’t keep New Orleans from finishing the 2010 campaign with a feeling of nausea.
A stunning first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks ended their hopes of repeating, but the Saints had started to unravel well before that. Injuries had taken their toll, as did some of the trappings that came with being the NFL’s reigning king.
"There was added pressure that we had to deal with,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said outside team headquarters Saturday after training camp practice. “It was our first time going through it. But I feel like we’re a better team now for going through it.”
Saints coach Sean Payton did an outstanding job of preventing complacency from infecting the roster during preparation for the 2010 campaign. But that still didn’t insulate the Saints from some of the Super Bowl-related troubles that surfaced.
Middle linebacker Jon Vilma said the problems began after losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals that contributed to a 3-2 start — a far cry from when New Orleans opened the 2009 season 5-0 en route to a 13-3 record.
"You have everybody talking about the Super Bowl,” Vilma said. “As soon as you lose, they want to magnify it. If you win, you’re supposed to win. It’s those types of things.
"For us, it was really about eliminating the distractions last year. I feel some guys did a better job than others.”
Asked to elaborate, Vilma wouldn’t name names. But he did say: “As blunt as I can put it, some guys can handle pressure and some guys can’t. Some of it may have affected some people. Can I say without a doubt? Of course I can’t. Do I wish we would have won? Of course. Hopefully, we get everyone back on that one common goal this year.”
Strong safety Roman Harper said the Super Bowl expectations made Saints players less loose than in 2009.
"We had partied together. We went out. We rejoiced together. We didn’t think about nothing,” Harper said. “It was almost like being a kid where you don’t know any better so you’re just going to ride it out. When you get a little older, maybe sometimes you overthink or try to overanalyze. Maybe you try to do too much of, ‘What did I do this year (compared) to last year?’ instead of just being yourself and going out and playing and giving it your all.
"At the end of the day, it’s football. Just be a little kid and have a good time.”
Even when the Saints seemed to have righted their ship last year with a six-game winning streak and late-season win over NFC South-champion Atlanta, the leaks already had sprung because of injuries. The backfield was especially devastated. The two top rushers (Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas) missed the playoff game against Seattle, and Reggie Bush was sidelined for half the season because of a fractured tibia.
New Orleans still might have topped the Seahawks, but the defense was dreadful in a 41-36 loss. Harper didn’t help matters with a poor performance in coverage, but he believes the Saints likely wouldn’t have gone much further in the playoffs, anyway.
"It may have been a blessing in disguise,” Harper said. “Our running backs were so beat up, we’d have probably gone to Chicago (in the second round) and all we would have had was a passing game. You don’t want to go into that type of environment like that.”
New Orleans also couldn’t overcome the disadvantage of playing on the road in the playoffs as a wild card even though its record (11-5) was far better than the NFC West-champion Seahawks (7-9). Another anomaly: The 2006 Saints finished 10-6 in Payton’s first season and were a No. 2 seed with home-field advantage.
“You have to play your best football week to week,” Payton said. “We were able to do that in 2009.”
All signs point toward the Saints being quite capable of doing that again.
The Saints have re-signed such core players as Harper, left tackle Jermon Bushrod, wide receiver Lance Moore and strong-side linebacker Scott Shanle since the NFL lockout was lifted last week. Three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers was inked before the lockout began.
After trading Bush to the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans signed a multipurpose replacement in Darren Sproles. The Saints added two first-round picks expected to make an immediate impact: running back Mark Ingram and defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Oh, and by the way: Brees is back.
He isn’t just one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. He also is one of the best team leaders, as exemplified by Brees leading mass offseason player workouts during the lockout.
Harper said Saints players are so committed to winning in 2011 that several participated in those sessions even though they weren’t officially under contract.
“We’re a step ahead of everyone right now,” said Vilma, who is the defensive team leader.
The 2009 Saints were the same way.
“For us, the expectations are that we will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy again this year, but we, obviously, understand the journey it takes to get there,” said Brees, whose team opens the regular season Sept. 8 against defending Super Bowl-champion Green Bay.
“That ‘09 season, we got to a point that every time we stepped on the field there was no doubt we were going to win. When we got behind in quite a few of those games, we stayed together. We were confident we would win and we would. Last year, it was almost like the talk was, ‘Who’s going to be the first team to knock off the Super Bowl champs?’ Every time we stepped into a game, we knew we were getting everybody’s stuff.”
That pressure — and dealing with the Super Bowl hangover — is Green Bay’s problem now.