As the New Orleans Saints wind their way through mini-camp, the team’s "win-now" philosophy is clear, evidenced by several factors, including that the team is already focusing on exorcising the road demons that haunted them in recent seasons.
The Saints know, in order to play in Arizona next February, they’ll have to improve on the 3-5 road record that crippled them in the regular season last year in losses like the one in St. Louis, then delivered the knockout punch during the playoffs in Seattle.
With that painful memory of the 12th man’s disruptiveness still eating away at his gut, head coach Sean Payton is pumping crowd noise into minicamp.
"This would be the first time we have done it in minicamp" Payton said. "Typically it has come in training camp and the preseason games and it’s what I said to these guys when we pulled up at the end of practice, it really is the reality of the game, whether it’s the defense at home or offense on the road and obviously it changes a lot of the dynamics in communication on both sides of the ball."
The extra noise isn’t a one-time thing. The Saints will repeatedly pump in distractions, including several times next week during OTA’s when they start using cadences.
It’s a strategy 35-year-old quarterback Drew Brees embraces.
"Well, at the end of the day, what are the difficult things about playing on the road?" Brees said. "Typically it’s you’re inability to communicate and what makes it difficult to communicate? It’s the crowd noise. So the more that you can practice it and rep it, the more that it becomes second nature with maybe just those non-verbal cues that are helping to get in and out of the huddle, help getting the ball snapped, so if you are used to it, it just becomes automatic and it’s something that you don’t stress about."
The coaching staff is also discussing the problem with the players, identifying the Black and Gold’s ineffectiveness way from the Super Dome as a challenge that must be conquered early, given the fact the Saints play four of their first six games on the road.
"We put up our road statistics for our players, and we talked about the front of the schedule," Payton said. "Certainly we want to play better than on the road a season ago and we’ve played pretty well in the last eight years. We’re one of the top five teams. That being said we’re talking about this team and when we’re going on the road, we’re generally dealing with crowd noise that is some kind of factor. Some places will be noisier than others. It’s really more for us in a red zone or nickel situation. Working with communication there are a lot of things going on and with some of the snap things we are doing"
The Saints are significantly younger on both sides of the ball this season. With several of those youngsters predicted to step into big roles, Payton was convinced the education of dealing with the trials and tribulations of life on the road in the NFL was a crucial lesson that must begin immediately.
"Mentally the biggest challenge for the rookies that come into our league is the pass protection and then one step further the pass protection when it comes in third down and the nickel," Payton said. "You receive a lot different look and a lot more varied looks. The quicker it can slow down and the quicker they can see the protection (the better). The communication starts with the quarterback with regards to how we’re treating that front, the better off we are. When you add noise to it, there’s a lot going on. I think that’s the biggest challenge for young running backs."
The Saints open the regular season in Atlanta against the Falcons and will go on to visit Cleveland, Dallas and Detroit in the first six weeks of competition.