METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton delivers one message on the back of his black, long-sleeved shirt that he wears with shorts and his trademark visor. It consists of two simple words: "OUR TIME."
The New Orleans Saints' coach delivers the other message by putting his team through a long, grueling practice under an unforgiving sun that has pushed temperatures into the high 90s with a heat index of 119 degrees.
"Here's what's scary," said offensive tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb, who is beginning his eighth season with the Saints. "I honestly feel like there have been much hotter days (for practice)."
Perhaps there were, especially from 2006-08 when the Saints held their training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., rather than the current location at the team's training facility. Jackson is about 150 miles north of here, so it tends not to offer the occasional breeze from the Gulf of Mexico that can make this spot slightly cooler ... for five or 10 minutes, at least.
Still, hot is hot and that's where the messages intersect. (Payton is very big on putting messages on shirts; last year's were "Smell Greatness," "Be Special," and "Finish Strong"). "OUR TIME" means that, as far as Payton and the rest of the Saints' hierarchy are concerned, the team isn't stopping with the first Lombardi Trophy it won last February. It means that the Saints intend to take full advantage of the window of opportunity their collection of highly-talented players gives them to stay in strong Super Bowl contention.
"There's a time for teams to have their best chance to win," Payton said. "We try to really look at the teams in our league that have had runs for quite a while. And when you look at New England, there was a period of three or four years when they won Super Bowls. We feel like we've got a good group and we feel like we've got the possibility of having a good run here."
Provided, that is, the Saints are able to maintain proper focus. It hasn't been easy. As everyone in the Saints' organization readily admits, the team and the town have been unabashed in celebrating their victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and reaping all of the rewards that have followed.
Payton, himself, spent a large portion of the offseason promoting a book he co-wrote. His tour lasted right up until the eve of the Saints' reporting day for camp last week. Quarterback Drew Brees also co-wrote a book that he promoted heavily and has been in high demand on the banquet circuit. Practically every other player on the roster has had the chance to do as many paid appearances and autograph sessions (some reportedly pocketing as much as $30,000 in two hours) throughout the immediate area and region as he wishes.
However, Payton utilized Mother Nature's blast furnace Sunday to provide his players with the sort of reminder about what it takes to win a championship -- the sacrifices and hardships they faced and overcame a year ago when they faced the Indianapolis Colts as underdogs.
As Payton pointed out, it would have been easy to move the practice to the indoor facility (where the morning walk-through was held) after checking the weather forecast the day before. Instead, he gave his players a warning about what they would face the next day: "This is going to be a little bit of a gut check. We're going to have to fight through it."
They did just that. The practice tempo was satisfactorily crisp for Payton and the rest of the coaches. There didn't seem to be too many mistakes, and players generally didn't need to be prodded through drills, even in the latter portion of the session.
"I think these guys are smart enough to understand the process and work it takes to have success," Payton said. "We've got good leadership in this locker room. When people talk about the upcoming season, we'll lean heavily on those guys that have been here and understand how hard it was to get to this position. There are some tough days, some tough practices where you're body's sore. Not only physically, but mentally, you're fighting that battle."
Early in the offseason, Stinchcomb looked for signs that the Saints' fight had vanished in the celebratory haze. He wondered if there was a genuine hunger for a second ring. He wondered if there were too many distractions, if the partying had gone on too long in one of the world's foremost party towns.
Stinchcomb knows he wasn't alone in having those concerns. "I think anybody who's worth their salt in that locker room has looked for those signs," he said.
They haven't seen them. Not since the offseason workout program began around the end of March. In fact, a number of players reported two to three weeks earlier than scheduled.
"(People have the notion that) the New Orleans Saints have spent the entire offseason on parade floats and on TV, everybody wrote a book, but that's hardly the case," Stinchcomb said. "Every time we've gotten together -- offseason workouts, OTAs, minicamp -- the focus has been there. The competitive fire is exactly (where it needs to be). I mean, we're getting after it out there."
Said Brees, "I think we have shown enough character on the team that guys can take advantage of the fruits of your labor and enjoy some of the opportunities that we've all had because of our success as a team, and yet still stay very close to that mindset that, 'Hey, we're only as good as our next performance.'"
» Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his exotic mixtures of fronts and coverages, but he has taken it to an even higher level this summer. The defense has, according to Williams, 28 packages and many have already been utilized through the early part of camp practices. One that is geared toward stopping the run is called "The Crash Dummy" package.
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The Saints employ a 4-3 base defense, but Williams has been showing a lot of 3-4 looks during camp. One of their dime defense alignments is a 3-3-5. They also have an "Elephant Backer" configuration with a roaming defender, usually end Bobby McCray. Williams has his linebackers rotating and playing a variety of positions, with the exception of Jonathan Vilma, who stays in the middle.
It's clear that Williams, entering his second season on the job here, has greater trust in his players' understanding of the scheme and also wants to stay ahead of opposing offenses that no doubt have thoroughly studied the Saints' defensive tendencies during the offseason.
"I think this day and age in football -- with the quarterbacks that you have, the timing they have with their receivers -- you have to keep them guessing and keep them off-balance," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "And we're lucky because we go against that type of offense every day. To get prepared for the season, sometimes the offseason is harder because you're going against Drew and (running back) Reggie (Bush) and those guys, so we get great looks every day."
» Backup quarterback is the one area where the Saints look to be anything but sound. They said good-bye to 18-year veteran Mark Brunell, who has since joined the New York Jets, convinced he could not carry the load if anything happened to Brees, and signed nine-year veteran Patrick Ramsey. But Ramsey, a Tulane product, has mostly struggled in practice since his late arrival. Chase Daniel, a 2009 undrafted free agent whom the Saints signed after he was cut by Washington, hasn't been much better. The other quarterback in camp is Sean Canfield, a seventh-round draft pick from Oregon State who has almost no chance of landing the No. 2 spot. "These reps are going to be important to (Ramsey), and Chase is further along, just because he knows the system," Payton said. "But those two are working hard at it. We'll keep looking at them and get into some games and really find out what we have with both of those players."
» With 20 of 22 starters returning, there isn't much in the way of position battles. The only noteworthy competition for a starting spot is at strong-side linebacker, where the Saints are searching for a replacement for Scott Fujita.
For now, there isn't a clear front-runner and the Saints might, in fact, rotate a variety of players at the position depending on their particular skills and which of the many defensive packages are being used. For now, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Troy Evans have been seeing a fairly even split of repetitions with the starters. Clint Ingram, Jonathan Casillas, and Stanley Arnoux are also in the mix.
Williams said it was possible to have a different starting strong-side linebacker for each of at least three packages. Ingram, an offseason free-agent acquisition who played in Jacksonville in 2008 when Williams was the Jaguars' defensive coordinator, was the favorite to receive the greatest amount of playing time, but he has been sidelined while recovering from knee surgery he underwent in April. He should have a chance to make his move after returning to action next week.
» For the first time in about three years, Vilma isn't entering camp after undergoing major or minor surgery in the offseason. "I was able to have a really good offseason training," Vilma said. "I feel good, but I feel even better when my teammates -- offensive linemen, defensive linemen -- say, 'You look fast going to the ball.'"
» At the end of Sunday's scorcher of a practice, Payton arranged for large slices of ice-cold watermelon to be waiting on a table for the players outside of the locker room. It's one of his camp traditions, but it's the first time he had done it this summer. Payton plans to provide the same treat every five days of camp.
» Running back Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie from Tiffin (Ohio) University, has caught the attention of Payton and other coaches in workouts.
"He's been pretty impressive," Payton said. "I'm anxious to see him in the preseason. He can run and he's physical."
Said Stinchcomb, "He's got good vision and he's got a little extra gear that he can turn on when he needs it. Early impressions are that he's got some tools that'll catch your eye."
The 6-foot, 222-pound Ivory transferred to Tiffin from Washington State, following an assistant coach (Dave Walkosky) who became head coach at Tiffin. But Ivory played only five games in 2009 before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Until that point, he had rushed for 223 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
» Tight end Jimmy Graham, a third-round pick from Miami, has made a number of eye-opening plays early in camp, including a dazzling one-handed grab 30 yards downfield over the weekend.
Graham isn't a threat to unseat starter Jeremy Shockey this year, but he figures to see his share of playing time in the two-tight end sets the Saints use. Graham can be expected to line up wide, as Payton likes to do with Shockey and Bush, to help create mismatches in coverage.
"Jimmy Graham has been, I would say, the talk of our offseason, beginning in the offseason workout program and the OTAs and the minicamp," general manager Mickey Loomis said. "It seems like every week, there are two or three plays that he makes that we've got a lot of people buzzing about. The danger here is to get too excited now and not recognize that he hasn't played a lot of football and he's raw and he's got a lot of development (ahead).
"The good thing is that he's got Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas and Tory Humphrey and some guys in front of him that are very experienced and he can learn from."
» With the Saints having such a strong secondary, first-round choice Patrick Robinson is going to have to battle hard to even have a role in nickel situations this year. Loomis likes the fact that the former Florida State cornerback is "pretty goal-oriented."
» Offensive tackle Charles Brown, a second-round pick from USC, was slowed by a hamstring injury he suffered during the offseason. He's healthy now, and is working on adding some needed bulk and strength to his 6-5, 297-pound frame.
» Undrafted rookie defensive end Junior Galette from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has made some plays deserving of a second look in the early going of camp.
Team owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, watched most of Sunday's practice from an observation deck outside his office on the top floor of the club's facility.
Later, with his wife by his side, he drove a golf cart around the perimeter of the practice field -- where hundreds of fans were sitting -- and drew cheers while proudly displaying the giant Super Bowl ring on his left hand as he slowly went by. Just in case any overzealous fan gave any thought to getting a little too close to the jewelry, a security guard rode on the back of the cart.
The scene said everything about how much goodwill Benson has been able to build with the fans by delivering the first Super Bowl crown to a franchise that went through some humiliating times in its earlier days. Suddenly, the worries that existed about Benson moving the team after all of the damage the Superdome sustained after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have vanished.
"There's a renewed focus, a renewed energy. I think we all understand we have to re-establish our identity and it all starts out here, during two-a-days. As special as last year was -- and it will always be for this community and these people -- our job as professional football players and we owe it to our organization and to our city to go back out there and do our best to find a way to win another championship. And I believe we have all the pieces in place to do that."
» With Colston and Meachem either not practicing or limited, Lance Moore, who has had his share of injuries in the past, has been the star of the position in camp.
"It's good to see him healthy," Payton said. "He's somebody that really has a great grasp on what we are trying to do, and rarely makes a mental error."
» Brees sees a bright side to being without some of his top targets. "We've got some young guys that now get the opportunity to get some pretty significant reps because those other guys are down," he said. "We've got some young receivers, some young tight ends, and some guys that need the work. And that's the only way they're going to get better, and I really look forward to seeing them progress through camp and as we get into preseason games. Who knows? One of these guys might end up playing a big role for us offensively?"
» Sharper underwent a partial microfracture procedure on his left knee after last season and is expected to miss a couple of more weeks. Although Sharper is coming off a sensational season, he'll be 35 in November and the Saints have to be concerned whether he will have enough range to be as effective as he was last year. Otherwise, it might be time to turn to 2009 first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, the former Ohio State safety who was slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries last season but performed well in the playoffs.