Saints rainy Monday practice calls to mind wet road woes of last season

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — With the skies dark and a steady rain blanketing the field, the Saints player caught the ball along the sideline, turned up field and opened his eyes in panic when the defensive back covering him stripped the ball, scooped it up and ran in the opposite direction.

It may read like it, but this sequence didn't occur last season, when the Saints won only four of 10 games away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and won one of four contests played in the rain. This was Monday at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where Saints training camp has been held since July 24 and the team learned there's still lots of work to do if its offense aspires to be less vulnerable in the elements than it has been.

The fumble by first-year tight end Nic Jacobs, caused and recovered by undrafted rookie safety Pierre Warren, was one of at least six live balls to tumble to The Greenbrier's slick, soaked grass Monday. Another three ended up there after botched exchanges between Tim Lelito — jockeying to start at center — and Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin, each vying to be the understudy to quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees didn't practice Monday. He's been out of action since Aug. 1 with a strained oblique.

Two more balls hit the ground because of botched exchanges between McCown and Jonathan Goodwin, Lelito's main competitor. Another almost did as McCown bobbled a snap from Lelito before getting it under control and completing a handoff.

The poor ball-handling didn't cease there, though. All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, second-year tight end Josh Hill, newly-acquired veteran fullback Greg Jones and rookie wide receiver Seantavius Jones all dropped passes as the raindrops poured down and temperatures dipped to a relatively chilly 66 degrees.

The only thing that didn't call to mind the “road woes” for which the Saints caught a ton of flak last year was rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, who caught a bubble screen around midfield and outran the pursuit up the sideline for a long score in a scene that's recurred throughout camp.

“I played at (Oregon State), so it rains like this all the time," Cooks later said. "I was kind of used to it. These guys from down south? They don't really see this.”

The Saints didn't have the option of moving inside even if they wanted to. There is no indoor facility built yet at The Greenbrier, which is hosting New Orleans' minicamp for the first time. However, it sounded as if coach Sean Payton would’ve foregone an indoors practice even if he had the option.

"The weather's not that bad — we're going to play in weather like this,” Payton said. “I thought it was good for us to see it and recognize that we've got to make some improvements, obviously, in being able to handle the ball and just function.”

“Just function” is something that didn't occur quite enough whenever the Saints were visitors in 2013. After winning their first two road games, New Orleans dropped five of its next six on the road before making the playoffs as a wildcard.

When traveling, the Saints averaged almost 16 points fewer than when they were at the Superdome, where they’ve not lost a game Payton has coached in since the end of the 2010 season. Brees’ passer rating was almost 40 points worse, and the Saints turned the ball over a staggering total of 15 times.

They momentarily quieted doubters by beating the Eagles in Philadelphia in icy weather, claiming the first road playoff victory in Saints history in conditions few believed the team could handle. But then they were knocked out of the running amidst rain and wind at Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Saints’ season-ending defeat at Seattle was one of four total games they played in the rain in 2013. In those four games, two of which were at Seattle, a Saints team averaging almost 26 points an outing never scored more than 16. They were outscored a combined 78-41, won only once (in Week 2 at Tampa Bay, which finished 4-12) and turned the ball over six times.

Seattle isn't on the regular-season schedule this year. But a late November excursion to Pittsburgh and a mid-December jaunt to Chicago are.

The Saints realize the potential for inclement weather those trips represent. They know this offseason's signing of Jairus Byrd (whose 22 interceptions since 2009 are the most among NFL safeties) and the selection of the explosive Cooks in the first round of the draft won't amount to much if they play as sloppy as they did Monday any time it rains.

“We've got to be able to handle that,” McCown said. "We spent time ... after practice taking 15, 20 extra snaps — no towels, no gloves, no (nothing), just getting the snaps. It takes some getting used to, but you have to be able to do it.”