WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The newly completed training site the Saints are using at the luxurious Greenbrier Resort represents a significant change of scenery – and climate – from the club’s permanent headquarters, where camp has been held the past five years.
For Payton and Loomis, change is good – even necessary – regardless of the fact that the Saints have been a playoff team in four of the past five seasons.
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”We wanted to go do something different. I think that energizes your players and your staff,” Loomis said. ”We wanted to get to place with a cooler climate and see if that impacted our team in terms of the soft-tissue injuries.”
The relative isolation of White Sulphur Springs, nestled in rural, rugged mountains near the state border with Virginia, was an attraction as well.
”You’ve got to want to find it, right? I mean, getting here, and then it’s kind of magnificent when you do,” Payton said. ”And you’re trying to reduce the outside distractions and come together as a team.”
Payton said the Greenbrier facilities were ”above and beyond expectations,” and described work done on fields with both natural and artificial surfaces, as well as meeting and weight rooms, as ”pretty amazing.”
Unchanged are the expectations that have followed Payton ever since he led the Saints to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in the 2009 season.
Payton and Loomis were quick to point out that there are a lot of variables – from chemistry to health – which ultimately dictate whether an NFL team succeeds.
Loomis went as far as to say that the roster ”on paper, is kind of meaningless to us at this point,” and noted that the quality of New Orleans’ roster going into 2009 drew far less hype than this year’s squad.
Yet, for Payton, the preseason hype and the scheduling irregularities that come with being highly regarded – the Saints have a franchise-high five night games on their regular season slate – are preferable to the losing reputation the club long held.
”It’s what we wanted, right?,” Payton said. ”It’s trying to change a culture to create an environment where you feel like you have a chance to be successful, a chance to win each season.”
As for injuries, Payton said the Saints are fortunate to have a short list of players unable to participate in Friday’s opening practice. However, he declined to specifically address whether New Orleans’ top free-agent acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, is ready to return from offseason back surgery.
Payton said only that he expected to see Byrd on the field ”sooner than later,” and said the same went for second-year nose tackle John Jenkins, who was placed on the physically unable to perform list earlier this week.
As for Jimmy Graham’s return from a protracted contract holdout that ended just last week, the coach said the star tight end was ”outstanding” in Thursday’s conditioning test.
”I told him to stay in Miami every offseason,” Payton joked, referring to Graham’s offseason home.
Payton said negotiations with Graham were never as contentious as one might have thought, even as they argued before an arbitrator about whether Graham was used more as a receiver or a tight end for the purposes of what his franchise tag should be.
The arbitrator sided with the Saints and the NFL, meaning Graham, barring an appeal, could have been forced to play for the $7 million tight end tag. But the club and Graham soon after agreed on a four-year, $40 million contract.
”In the end, I’m fired up for Jimmy because he’s earned this opportunity,” Payton said. ”We’ve seen a guy come in here young, and all of a sudden, in a short period of time, accomplish a lot of great things – and still has a lot of things I’m sure that he’s going to be able to accomplish.
”It would be much more challenging if we were sitting here today and a situation like that wasn’t resolved,” Payton added.
Notes: Payton not only monitored conditioning tests but also participated. The coach, who has improved his fitness considerably since starting CrossFit training in 2012, said he completed the test, but had to overcome some doubts as he pushed a sled across the field. ”I didn’t want that sled to be sitting there halfway between the sidelines,” he said.
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