Saints ready for second run at title

Our time?

Not if the rest of the NFL has its say.

The team motto for the 2010 New Orleans Saints is meant to reflect what this franchise can accomplish as defending Super Bowl champion. Saints coach Sean Payton describes “Our Time” as “trying to take advantage of our opportunity and window here and recognize there’s only one team that has a chance to repeat.”

The clock officially started running Friday morning with the opening of Saints training camp. The weather was so sweltering during the two-hour practice that not even a pack of Payton’s customary Juicy Fruit made it through intact inside his pocket.

“I can always tell that when the gum melts it’s going to be hot,” he said.

Just wait until the Saints start feeling the heat when the regular season begins.

“When you’re the defending champs, everyone circles your name on their schedule,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told “You’re going to get your opponent’s best effort. It’s part of why I think what Indianapolis and New England have done the last 10 years is so remarkable. They get their opponents’ best game every week yet they’ve been able to record double-digit wins year after year, get into the playoffs and win Super Bowls.

“That’s what we aspire to. We know this year is going to be tougher than a year ago.”

History has proven this for other Lombardi Trophy winners. The 2004 Patriots are the only team to defend its Super Bowl title in the past 12 seasons. In comparison, five champions failed to make the playoffs the following year during that span. That includes the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.

There are reasons why this happens besides Loomis’ “bull’s-eye” theory and injuries that can derail even the most talented squads. Some teams can become overconfident. Others have their rosters and coaching staffs raided the following offseason.

The Saints have avoided both pitfalls.

New Orleans returns every top assistant and 20 of 22 starters from Super Bowl XLIV. While changes in the collective bargaining agreement weren’t kind to a slew of Saints restricted free agents such as running back Pierre Thomas and strong safety Roman Harper, New Orleans benefited from new rules that greatly hindered player movement. The only notable losses from last year’s team were running back Mike Bell (Philadelphia) and linebacker Scott Fujita (Cleveland). The Saints also were able to add veteran talent at defensive end, re-sign free safety Darren Sharper — the glue to an opportunistic secondary — and ink star right guard Jahri Evans to a $56.7 million contract extension.

The Saints also have taken steps to cure any hangover resulting from the Mardi Gras-size celebration that lasted long after their 31-17 upset of Indianapolis. Payton and Brees each spoke respectively with other Super Bowl-winning coaches and players — those whose teams did and didn’t repeat — for tips on how to defuse complacency.

“Human nature is to relax a little, to feel like, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived. We’re there. We don’t need to take the approach to get better every day because we’re at the (top) level,’” Brees said. “When you have that mentality, you’re in trouble. You can let the little things slide and start to think, ‘Ah, we’ll figure it out later on, or on game day it will all work out.’ That’s a disease. The fact is we recognize those things. Because we do, we’re not going to let it happen.”

Said Loomis: “We’ve had an offseason of TV appearances, awards, book signings, streets being named after players and that sort of thing. That’s over with. We’ve got to recognize that we’re starting at ground zero.”

Payton’s constant reinforcement of that message has paid early dividends. “Blowing it out of the water” is how Brees described his team’s strong performance in Thursday’s conditioning test. Brees himself says he feels better physically than at the opening of last year’s camp, which is scary considering he set the NFL’s all-time mark for completion percentage (70.6) in a stellar 2009 campaign.

Brees managed to up his training regimen despite fitting in enough extracurricular activities to put Chad Ochocinco to shame. Brees flew with the F-16 Thunderbirds in nearby Shreveport, played golf with Jack Nicklaus, served as the Mardi Gras parade king Bacchus, and took a USO trip to Dubai, Turkey and Djibouti in East Africa. This schedule doesn’t even include the release of his autobiography and subsequent press tour, work with his charity foundation, local and national appearances, a tour of the oil-stricken Gulf Coast area with teammates and the post-Super Bowl trip to Disney World as the game’s MVP that kicked it all off.

Asked what he tells himself to get ready as the season approaches, Brees used a spinoff on the words that Payton hopes other players have taken to heart: “It’s time.”

“I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t take advantage because you just never know when opportunities like this will ever come again,” Brees said. “We have enough veteran guys that we’ve all been a part of some really good teams and some bad. We see what we have here. It’s something that can be really special.”