ON A LATE-OCTOBER THURSDAY, THUNDERSTORMS ARE rolling out of East Texas and into Louisiana, turning the sky a deep and ominous gray over the Saints' practice facility in suburban Metairie. The afternoon's workout has been moved to the team's cavernous indoor field, where instructions echo off the metal sidewalls and punts can hit the ceiling. But it's safe from lightning.
This is the Saints' last intense practice before traveling to Miami for a Sunday game against the Dolphins, and when it's over, players trudge out and follow a covered concrete walkway to their locker room in an adjacent building. Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams conduct short press briefings at the side of the field. Soon the building is empty except for quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints' receivers, who remain at one end of the field adding 30 minutes to the practice.
Their session is businesslike, if vaguely mellow. The receivers stand in a bunch while Brees mimics taking a snap from center, and then one by one they execute pass routes while Brees throws. Receivers coach Curtis Johnson and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi linger nearby, but clearly it is Brees who runs the drill. Think of it as extra credit, in pursuit of perfection.
"Every day," says Johnson of how often the unit drills en masse. "Drew does a great job with these guys, getting them where they need to be, when they need to be there." The purpose of the sessions is simple: During limited team practice time, some of the receivers will run some of their potential routes. Brees keeps them around afterward to ensure that all of them run all their possible patterns. This one exercise for this one group opens a small window into the essence of a very good team: hard work beyond what's required, attention to detail and an appreciation of the collective mission.
In the hollow quiet of the indoor facility, third-year wideout Robert Meachem runs a long streak down the right sideline. Brees drops the ball over Meachem's inside shoulder, and Johnson shouts, "Late hands!" It's a cue to remind Meachem to react to the ball at the last possible second, so as not to show a defender that it's coming. As Meachem jogs back, fourth-year star Marques Colston runs a long crossing route, the kind of pattern Jerry Rice and Joe Montana made famous. Brees flutters a soft ball that Colston runs down, tucks away and turns upfield for 50 yards. Johnson claps enthusiastically.
New Orleans's receivers are an uncommon bunch, a mix of the unwanted, the (once) overrated and the (supposedly) washed-up, each righting wrongs from somewhere in his recent past, joining with Brees to form the most potent offense in the NFL in 2009. Seven Saints caught at least 35 passes in '09, more than on any other team in the league. Ten players caught at least one touchdown pass.
There is Colston, the 6' 4", 225-pound flanker out of Hofstra who was picked in the seventh round of the 2006 draft but has developed into one of the premier wideouts in the league. Colston has a freakish ability to twist and extend his body in the air, a two-edged skill that lets him make catches others can't—"He can get a ball anywhere you put it," says Johnson—but exposes him to massive hits. In January 2009 he had microfracture surgery on his left knee and, a week later, reconstructive surgery on his left wrist, the latter courtesy of a hit by the Bears' Danieal Manning.
Colston spent part of his off-season working out at Sonic Boom, a training center in suburban New Orleans, and part in Los Angeles, working with a personal trainer arranged by Saints tight end Billy Miller, all to improve his fitness and durability. It is a distant cry from Colston's rookie year, when he stuffed himself and partied between the draft and a late-spring minicamp. "It was a minicamp; I thought it would be low-key," says Colston. "I got here, and I was overwhelmed by the workload. Now I just love playing this game so much, I don't want them to be able to get me off the field. It's a blessing to do what we do."
There is Devery Henderson, the sixth-year wideout from LSU who has track speed but spent two seasons dropping balls. Now he begins practice every day by working with Johnson on fundamentals. First he practices catching a falling handkerchief with his fingertips, to improve fingertip dexterity and to remind himself that passes should be caught the same way. Then Johnson throws him a series of balls and tells him to listen for the tick when the ball hits his fingertips. "Tick, tick, tick," says Johnson. "That's what you want to hear. Sometimes you hear a slapping sound, and that's bad. Devery's problem is that he was a running back for two years at LSU and wasn't really learning how to catch the football. And he didn't have to catch and catch and catch in drills."
Henderson came to the Saints as a Bayou legend of sorts. On Nov. 9, 2002, he was on the receiving end of a desperation 75-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Randall that gave the Tigers a 33-30 victory over Kentucky. (LSU won the national championship the next year.) "That still comes up with the fans," Henderson says. "It's really still going on. And when I wasn't going good around here, that helped keep up my confidence, kept me going. I had trouble with drops."