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Saints coach embraces opening as a favorite

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -Reigning NFL coach of the year Sean Payton doesn't put much stock in the so-called sophomore jinx.

"I liked my sophomore year in college," Payton said Thursday night while speaking to reporters for the first time since the New Orleans Saints reported for training camp at Millsaps College a day earlier.

"It's like the Superdome curse and all that other stuff," Payton said, referring to the belief that the Saints could never win because the dome was built on the site of a former cemetery.

"It's the second year, I guess. I concern myself more with, you know, you came off a season where you had some success and maybe you exceeded some people's expectations and then right away I think you want to make sure you're guarded to make sure your players understand that was last year and we didn't achieve our final goal" of winning the Super Bowl.

One of the most noted ways he did that during the offseason was by holding a mock jazz funeral at Saints headquarters, with brass band and all, to bury the memorable 2006 season.

So far, there have been few signs of anything falling apart in year two, as it did for his predecessor, Jim Haslett, whose squad missed the playoffs one season after he was the 2000 coach of the year.

The Saints signed all of their draft choices before training camp began for the first time since 2000. Payton also noted that Thursday's conditioning drills revealed a team in better physical shape to open camp than any NFL team he's been a part of since joining the league as an assistant coach a decade ago.

"I was real encouraged with not only the running tests, but I was real encouraged with their reporting weights," Payton said. "That's something obviously you always concern yourself with when you leave them in June ... and they handled it well. They understand the importance of staying in shape ... the type of work that starts in March and not throwing it away during that time off. They handled it real well."

And unlike NFC South Division rival Atlanta - which reported to camp missing star quarterback Michael Vick - the Saints have no significant off-the-field distractions.

Last year, in his rookie season as head coach, Payton turned a team that was 3-13 in 2005 into a 10-6 playoff contender. New Orleans went on to play in the NFC championship game for the first time in the franchise's four-decade history.

Payton said the sharp improvement resulted partly from his emphasis on infusing the roster with smart, disciplined, unselfish, well-behaved players. He has retained most of those players while making a few key additions, leaving him confident that his squad won't be emotionally hung over from last year's storybook return to post-Katrina New Orleans.

"You hope your guys stay healthy and out of trouble," Payton said. "But it also deals with the adversity in season ... and knowing you've got the right type of players in the locker room that can handle a skid maybe where you lose a couple games.

"There's going to be a stretch where we're challenged, and that's when you start counting on the character of the individual and the player that knows, coming off a tough loss, how to come back and practice."

On Friday, the Saints will hold their first full practices of training camp. With double sessions in Mississippi's oppressive summer heat, the Saints are slated to practice 28 times by Aug. 16.

Other than special teams standout Steve Gleason, placed on injured reserve this week as he rehabilitates a knee injury, and defensive lineman Brian Young, who expects to be back from a broken foot before the regular season begins, the Saints expect to have everyone else on the roster practicing this weekend.

Only a handful of players got part of Thursday off with minor muscle pulls or illness, Payton said, including defensive end Will Smith (hamstring), right tackle Jon Stinchcomb (groin), rookie cornerback Usama Young (quad) and guard Jamar Nesbit (stomach virus).

Nesbit was taken to a hospital for tests but was expected to be back at practice this weekend, as were the others held out Thursday.

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