METAIRIE, La. (AP) — No scandals. No holdouts. No suspensions.
With the Saints only days from starting their last vacation until training camp opens in late July, they're relishing the sense of normalcy that has defined this offseason in New Orleans.
They talk of spirited, productive workouts in the weight room and on the field, and about strong leadership from reinstated coach Sean Payton. They also appear confident that they have a real chance to quickly regain the status of contenders they held from 2009 through 2011 — before the NFL unleashed the findings of its bounty investigation and subsequent sanctions in 2012.
“This is why I came here,” middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said Tuesday following one of the Saints' final practices of the offseason. Lofton arrived as a free agent a little over a year ago, only to spend his first season in New Orleans on a 7-9 squad that was never coached by Payton for a single practice.
Payton was reinstated in January, and since voluntary workouts for 2013 season began in April, there have been no distractions from football.
Any contracts which were renegotiated were done so quietly and without player absences — another sharp departure from last year, when star quarterback Drew Brees held out for his current five-year, $100 million deal until July. During 2012 minicamp, as well as the non-padded practices known as OTAs (organized team activities), assistant head coach Joe Vitt was in charge and former backup quarterback Chase Daniel was working with the first team.
Brees has said this offseason seems like the first normal one he's experience since 2009, noting that in 2010, the team was coming off a Super Bowl victory and that the 2011 offseason was wiped out by a lockout.
“This has been great, just getting in this locker room back in mid-April and just focusing on getting better, (working in) the weight room and being around the guys, just getting back to football,” Brees said recently. “We've been looking forward to this for a while.”
Defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jon Vilma — among the players who renegotiated contracts to remain in New Orleans — have been able to work on learning new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme without being in regular contact with lawyers or the player's union about any looming suspensions. Although Smith and Vilma never wound up serving their bounty suspensions — which were overturned on appeal last December — the matter hung over them most of the season. Other Saints said that was a distraction as well, if only because of all the bad publicity it brought to players they respected.
“You'd say, 'That's my brother,' and at the same time you're defending him, too, in public,” right tackle Zach Strief recalled. “It hurts you to hear people say things about the guy. So it's nice not having to do that and be able to have the camaraderie and just play, rather than worry about that stuff.”
Payton acknowledged on Tuesday that this offseason has been a good one, but added that he sees that as only natural when prideful players accustomed to success come off a disappointing season.
“We have enough veteran leadership on this team and players recognize that we can be a lot better and we need to be better,” Payton said.
Yet the coach also shoots down any assumptions that his return should, in and of itself, should equate to more victories.
“Every year is different. I never talk with this team about us being like the '09, '10, '11 team,” Payton said. “There's nothing promised. There's a process of working hard. Obviously there's a lot of things we've got to improve on and that we're working on. But outside of that, shoot, we haven't even put pads on yet.”
That message apparently has gotten through.
“Having (Payton) back brings stability and kind of knowing what we're getting, but it doesn't guarantee anything,” punter Thomas Morstead said. “The important thing to guard against is feeling like, 'OK, he's back, and we're going to win 12 or 13 games again this year.' Certainly that would be great but that's not guaranteed.”
Strief agreed, but said it was still nice to see the conversations changing from a year ago, when there was so much talk about all the Saints had to overcome, rather than talk about how smooth and football-focused this offseason has been.
“You can't guarantee that having a good offseason is going to equate to wins, but you can pretty well concede that having a terrible offseason won't equate to wins,” Strief said. “So I think it gives us an opportunity.”
Notes: New Saints OLB Victor Butler appeared hurt during an accidental collision with RB Mark Ingram during Tuesday's practice, in which players did not wear pads and did not tackle, as with all offseason practices. Payton, however, said Butler did not appear to be seriously injured after banging knees with Ingram. “I think he is going to be fine, actually,” Payton said. “So we are fortunate.” … While Tuesday marked the last time media would be permitted to attend practice until training camp, the Saints had two more days of work scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday before starting about five weeks of vacation.