Lewis: Greenbrier could be Saints’ training camp for years to come

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — There’s always no place like home.

But the Saints have found a second one.

“I’ve already told coach (Sean) Payton that if you move it from here, I don’t know if I’m coming back,” tackle Zach Strief said as the team wrapped up nearly three weeks of training camp Wednesday at The Greenbrier. “I know we’ve got three more years here, so I’m good for all three.

“I think everybody wants to keep coming back.”

If there was skepticism about the benefits of an NFL team moving training camp from its up-to-date (and state-funded) Metairie facility to this five-star resort located in a rural corner of southern West Virginia which had no football facilities until they were carved out of a mountain, it quickly dissipated when the players not only discovered the amenities such a place provides, but the extraordinarily cool temperatures.

It was usually in the 60s for morning practices and 81 was the highest for an afternoon session. That’s pretty much the norm here.

Even on Monday and Tuesday of this week, the only two days it actually rained during practice, it was hardly never enough to disrupt things. In fact, it was actually beneficial for a team that didn’t handle the elements well last season.

Obviously back in Metairie the Saints have their own indoor facility for when they want to cool off or get out of the rain, but it’s not the same as having a mountain breeze in your face.

Only on Tuesday morning when the sun came out after rain had fallen for the past hour was there anything approaching that familiar New Orleans-like humidity. And that was probably more of a contrast for what it’s been like here than the daily mid-August conditions back home.

“Sometimes you have to appreciate that New Orleans weather,” said cornerback and proud West Bank native Keenan Lewis. “But after being here, I’d say it’s unanimous to come back.”

Lest you folks back home think we’re just rubbing it in, there was a practical benefit to working in moderate temperatures.

While we might admire, and even romanticize enduring preseason drills during a Louisiana summer, the fact remains that teams get more work done when they’re not being drained by the sun or having to think about it.

Even this late in camp, there’s plenty of energy on the field.

“Being here entitled us to keep a little more speed on the field in the second and third weeks because the heat didn’t drain us, which is something that happens down in Metairie,” said defensive line coach Bill Johnson, who’s been doing this on the college and NFL level since 1980. “It gives you a chance to work at a good rate longer before your legs start going.

“And I think we have the type team that can handle this. The environment has been very conducive to learning from the technique standpoint.”

And lest anyone feel that an element of toughening up is needed for success, Strief pointed out that that can be handled in better ways.

“You bring in the right guys, guys that already have toughness,” he said. “You’re not taking a guy who has a weak mind and putting him in the heat and all of a sudden he pops out on the other side as a tough player.

“Really he probably just complained for four weeks.”

To be sure, there will be some tweaking of things next year, although all have been impressed by the high degree of organization the Saints staff along with that of the Greenbrier have demonstrated for a first-year organization.

The practicalities of practicing away from home mean the first playoff game has to be on the road. This year’s was at St. Louis but Payton said that in 2015 he’d rather have it some place nearer such as Washington, Baltimore or Pittsburgh so that the travel could be by bus rather than plane.

Also, practicing here probably precludes bringing in another team to scrimmage.

“When we start doing a list of potential tweaks or changes, it’s going to be less than half a page,” Payton said. “But right now I can’t think of one thing I’d want to change. It’s been that good.”

So now training camp is over and the team is coming home.

Although there have been the usual injuries, no starters have been lost, with the possible exception of fullback Eric Lorig.

Plus, there have been no off-the-field incidents or suspensions — knock on wood.

The bottom line is that if the purpose of coming here was to enhance the team’s chances of winning, for all appearances it’s been accomplished.

And for fans who might have been upset out missing out on seeing the team in camp, there will be seven open sessions, six in Metairie and one Wednesday in Mandeville.

Just be prepared for this setup to become a fixture.