WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The ball, spinning hard off the hand of Drew Brees, came in hot and buzzed right past New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, nearly picking him off after almost taking out club PR czar Greg Bensel.
Payton turned and flashed a grimace to the field, looking back at Brees and surveying how the errant toss was part of something else -- a faux skeet-shooting competition between the quarterbacks where one flips a disc into the air and another tries to hit it on the fly with a throw. And then Payton did just what you'd expect a 50-year-old coach to do.
He jumped in.
That, in a nutshell, is where the Saints are heading in 2014. Supremely confident, raring to compete and loaded for bear.
"Here's what I can control, or pay attention to, at least: Our injuries are down, we got our guys signed, we feel like we had a good draft, and I feel like there are some free agents that have begun the process where you go, 'Man, these guys have a chance'," Payton told me, a few minutes after the near miss last Friday. "It's like I was saying to the players last night: 'Hey, regardless of what's written and said, this team is gonna separate itself for good or for poor based on what we do. Nothing's promised.' "
As was implied in that message to open camp, the coach knows where expectations are, coming off last year's 11-5 rebound campaign. More so, it's clear that no one here is backing away from them.
The Saints should be really good, and they know it. There's emerging young talent at receiver (Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks, Nick Toon), tailback (Khiry Robinson) and along the offensive line (Terron Armstead, Tim Lelito). There's Rob Ryan entering Season 2 as defensive boss, with Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey and second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste added as system fits. And there's the improving health (Byrd and John Jenkins will be back soon) and contract resolutions (Jimmy Graham) that Payton referenced.
Bottom line: There's a lot to like.
"On paper, it looks pretty good," Brees said in a private moment after practice. "You got some really good, solid, veteran guys, established guys, and then you've got a lot of young talent, and you can envision how they're gonna fit in the whole thing."
But beyond just the talent on hand, there's a looseness and swagger to the players and coaches.
That all makes sense, considering this is the first normal offseason they've had, really, since the one that preceded their Super Bowl campaign of 2009. With the Mardi Gras-infused championship celebration, lockout and bounty scandal investigation/fallout in the rearview mirror, the past few months in Metairie, Louisiana, have been relatively quiet.
Yes, the Graham thing dragged on, but the Saints never felt, internally, like that wouldn't eventually be taken care of. With offseason distractions kept to a minimum, the team has enjoyed time to develop an identity. Ideally, the aforementioned looseness and swagger will be accompanied by a fierce edge, mirroring the 2009 championship squad. The hope is, as training camp heats up, this will manifest in the way the team works against itself to prepare for the fight against others. It is, in fact, what you saw in New Orleans during the title season: nasty practices where it looked like the offense didn't like the defense much, and vice versa. Brees said, "I love Rob Ryan, I love his aggressive approach." Ryan, of course, serves as a counterpart to the swashbuckling Payton.
That competition the quarterbacks had during their downtime? The idea, Brees said, is for that spirit to permeate the team.
"There's a winner and a loser. How bad do you want it?" said Brees, raising his voice. "When I'm out here, I'm trying to destroy our defense, man. And they're trying to get to me, they're trying to fool me, they're trying to destroy us. When you have that mentality, that just becomes your nature. Then you go out with this attitude: Every time I step on the field, I'm trying to destroy that team on the other side of the ball. That's what builds that confidence and that swagger."
Fired up, Brees continued, "If everything you do, you're trying to win at, and you're pissed if you don't win, it becomes your nature. It is my nature."
It's his coach's nature, too.
On this day, Payton flashes a cut on the inside of his right palm, where he can literally lift a chunk of skin off his hand. It's from his CrossFit work, which not only prepared him to pass the Saints' unique military-like conditioning test, but also has re-energized the eighth-year head coach. For Payton, it started during his recovery from the broken knee, broken tibia and torn MCL he suffered in a sideline collision in 2011, with the rehab carrying over to fitness.
"We're not getting any younger, and yet, personally being able to stay committed to fitness, it's helped me mentally have more energy," Payton said. "A number of these things, there's no way I would've been able to do."
So he jumps in the quarterback competition with his players.
And that moment wasn't exactly to send any sort of message. It's who Payton is, it's who Brees is, it's who the Saints want to be. The coach will tell you himself, that drive to a championship is right where it's always been, as far as he's concerned.
"Absolutely," Payton said. "Absolutely. Absolutely."
From the early looks of it, that could go for a lot of guys around here.
Three-and-out from Saints camp
1) In one fell swoop, the Saints jettisoned Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper and Will Smith, four players who started a staggering 352 regular-season games for the franchise. "There's not one player left from our Super Bowl roster (on defense)," Payton said in our conversation. "Those are tough transitions." From a leadership standpoint, there's a void, no doubt. Internally, the hope is that Curtis Lofton, Kenny Vaccaro, Keenan Lewis and Cameron Jordan fill those shoes, and that Byrd follows suit once he's healthy and ready to go. Having Bailey around doesn't hurt, either.
2) On the offensive side of the ball, the Saints are banking big-time on the continued development of a number of young guys. And in particular, it's the sophomore class. Both Stills and Robinson should contribute in replacing the big-play production of Darren Sproles (124 offensive touches last fall), but just as important is the development of a pair of offensive linemen. The potential of Armstead and Lelito at left tackle and center, respectively, guided some significant roster decisions for the Saints this offseason.
3) Continuity should help on defense, with only the strong-side linebacker and left corner jobs still up for grabs. Brees himself told me, of the defense, "I love the way (Ryan) has those guys playing. We have some swagger over there, which is great." New Orleans went from historically bad in 2012 to fourth in total defense in 2013, so there's far less room to improve. But the unit's own expectations remain high. Jordan told me, "Everybody can make a jump this year -- nobody's comfortable."
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.