Several thousand football-starved fans, sauna-like conditions and a team building for a better tomorrow made Friday morning seem like any first day of training camp for the New Orleans Saints, now three seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl.
But anyone who knows the Saints saga of a year ago understands this was no ordinary opening day to the 2013 season.
For the first time since the 2011 preseason, quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton shared a training camp practice field, sweating, working hard, pushing others and showing the way.
No. 9 on the roster and the organization’s No. 1 football man: In Who Dat Nation that adds up to a perfect 10.
“It’s back to normal,’’ Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said on the eve of camp. “We have 2012 in our rearview mirror, and we are just looking ahead. We are not looking in the rearview mirror, so all that feels normal, and it feels good.’’
The feel-good vibe within the Saints organization and fan base is palpable now that the bounty scandal is behind them. And while the mere sight of Payton and Brees working on a practice field seems insignificant to some, it speaks volumes to those who lived and breathed the season-long nightmare that separated Payton from his football family.
For Brees, the loss of Payton touched many levels. From a football standpoint, they arguably have formed one of the most successful coach-quarterback tandems in the NFL and share a special kinship seldom seen in professional sports.
While Brees has been influenced by many outstanding coaches throughout his career, he credits Payton “for helping take it to another level.’’
“Marty Schottenheimer (at San Diego), Joe Tiller (at Purdue) and great position coaches; all of these guys have been great mentors for me and helped mold me into the player and person I am,’’ Brees said.
“(But) you are talking about the guy who believed in me enough to bring me here and give me the opportunity that not a lot of people were willing to give me. Certainly, he was sticking his neck out by doing that. He was a first-time coach coming to New Orleans post-Katrina. There will always be a special relationship there.’’
It’s impossible to quantify how much of an effect Payton’s absence had on Brees in 2012. Statistically, Brees racked up Pro Bowl-type numbers — 5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes, a 96.3 passer rating. But he also threw 19 interceptions and went through a particularly distressing two-game stretch against San Francisco and Atlanta (both losses) at a critical juncture of the season.
Brees threw seven interceptions (two returned for TDs against the 49ers) and saw his streak of 54 consecutive games with at least one scoring pass come to an abrupt end against the Falcons.
“A 7-9 record doesn’t sit well with any of us,’’ Payton said. “There’s an expectation that we have developed and have worked hard to create. He is used to — and plans on — winning.
“He had won in 2011, in 2010 and in 2009 a lot of games, more than most anybody else in the league. When you get hit with a season like that (in 2012) as a competitive player, whether it’s a quarterback or anyone else on your roster, it doesn’t sit well with them.’’
And while players, coaches and team officials say they have put the 2012 season in their rear-view mirror, it will continue to serve as a constant reminder of a place they never want to visit again.
Unquestionably, that is the case for Brees and Payton, two men on a mission who have been reunited after a particularly cruel season apart.
“There’s a probably a little fresher excitement around here than there would normally be because of what happened a year go,’’ Loomis said. “I think we are all a little more focused than we would have been otherwise. (Payton) is the same guy but he does seem really focused. Look, that’s part of his talent - to focus on the team and the task at hand. But, boy, he is right there.’’
And it’s only Day 1 of training camp.