Postcard from camp: Saints
The Saints are using their offseason bounty scandal as motivation this season
Despite several summer distractions, Drew Brees looked sharp as ever in camp
The team is impressed with Curtis Lofton and wanting more out of Mark Ingram
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Peter King had to say about Saints camp in Metairie, La., which he visited on July 27. Read all of our postcards here.
At the Saints' complex in Metairie, La., where the club is doing construction to expand the practice facility and offices. I miss the recent days when the Saints used to travel to Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., one of the great camp sites because of the cozy campus and the closeness of the fans to the team. This afternoon, because of a thunderstorm earlier that drenched the area, the Saints had to cancel the public practice and move indoors to the practice facility. No fans. But there was a huge poster of Sean Payton glaring down on the boys at practice with a "DO YOUR JOB'' warning underneath. Owner Tom Benson ordered it to be installed in time for the players to see it at practice this afternoon.
1. There's a definite us-against-the-world feeling in camp. I spent an hour or so with Drew Brees while he lunched in the Saints cafeteria, and he made it clear that the players, and the organization, believe strongly that they have been wronged by the NFL in the Saints bounty probe. Paraphrasing Brees (and you can read the bulk of his comment in my Monday Morning Quarterback column this week), Brees differentiates between the pay-for-performance bonus system, which many teams had in place the last few years, and the bounty system, which the NFL claims the Saints were guilty of fostering over the past three seasons. And he thinks, as do many in the Saints locker room and front office, that the league overstepped its bounds in suspending Saints players, coaches and GM Mickey Loomis a total of 77 games. Brees made his point very clear: The Saints will remember what they feel is an injustice, and it will come in handy when motivation is needed in 2012.
2. Brees might have missed the entire offseason in his contract dispute, but he looked fantastic in the 75 minutes I watched Friday. So much for offseason contract-wrangling. New Orleans media monster Bobby Hebert (he of the "Seinfeld" George Constanza "Bobby Ay-BEAR" fame) told me Brees had an other-worldly first practice Thursday after his contract hassle, and every time I looked up he was hitting Jimmy Graham or Lance Moore or even Nick Toon square in the hands in the afternoon workout.
3. Curtis Lofton is a better middle linebacker than Jonathan Vilma today. The Saints are thrilled with the versatility and leadership shown thus far by Lofton, who has had to walk a locker-room tightrope because the suspended Vilma is such a good locker-room presence. Lofton told me he's had to be careful to not be a dominating presence early, but he also made clear that the middle 'backer has to be the defensive captain on the field, and he hasn't shied from that. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves Lofton, by the way. He thinks Lofton is the perfect signal-caller and physical athletic presence he requires in his scheme for a middle linebacker.
Mark Ingram, running back. Last year, Payton got Bill Parcells on the phone and had him talk to Ingram about playing hurt. Parcells coached Ingram's dad, the incarcerated Mark Ingram, a wide receiver, with the Giants. The Saints traded a future first-round pick to acquire the younger Ingram late in Round 1 in 2011, and the early returns have been mediocre. True, the Saints have the versatile Pierre Thomas as their primary back, and the explosive Darren Sproles for the all-purpose role out of the backfield, but the Saints are counting on Ingram to be a 200-touch player for them this year. He has to deliver so the Saints don't have to wear Thomas down.
Brodrick Bunkley, defensive tackle. John Fox loved Bunkley last year in Denver and the Broncos very much wanted to keep him as the keystone to their defensive tackle corps. But the Saints stole him for $5 million a year, on average, which stunned the Broncos. Five million a year for a defensive tackle who likely won't be a three-down player? Bunkley will have to be great against the run -- which the Saints need -- to justify the big payday.
Well, I didn't eat at the Saints' cafeteria Friday. I figured it's probably not such a good idea to eat a team's food when half the organization (and that might be conservative) wants me to fall off a cliff because of my reporting on the bounty affair. But I sat with Brees while he ate, and it looked lovely -- a couple of grilled vegetable wraps and three bottles of water to stave off the inevitable summer dehydration at the Saints' afternoon practice. I will give Abita Brewery a B+ for two bottles of their fine Amber Ale while waiting for a plane at the New Orleans airport in the evening.
I wouldn't want to be Robert Griffin III opening the season, and his career, at the Superdome with a mad-at-the-world crowd in the stands. The schedule has this advantage: two of the first three at home, two of the final three at home. It also has the disadvantage of a relative murderer's row of quarterbacking foes. Out of division, the Saints are at Aaron Rodgers' Packers, Eli Manning's Giants, Peyton Manning's Broncos and Tony Romo's Cowboys, with visits to the Superdome by Philip Rivers' Chargers and Mike Vick's Eagles. Yikes.