Sunday night, the Saints team took to the field at Yulman Stadium for a two hour evening practice open to the public.
Fans of all ages and types came out in droves to support the Black and Gold. Some even donned their Sunday best usually reserved only for game days.
Drew Brees entered the field before anyone else and took himself through a 10 minute warmup consisting of jumping jacks, jump squats, twists, and stretches. It’s easy to see why he has been in the league so long. He is simply willing to work harder and longer than anyone else to achieve greatness on the football field.
The ball came out Brees’ hand noticeably faster than out of any other quarterback wearing a red jersey. Even Brees’ jersey was a darker hue of red than the others because he was sweating his ass off, and at 39, he still looked like one of the fittest athletes on a field of mostly 20somethings.
The first thing I noticed after the other players came out and began warming up was that this was a well oiled machine. Every drill had purpose. Everyone knew their role. No time was wasted and reps were maximized. When third year running Jonathan Williams fumbled the ball during agility drills, the running backs coach made him repeat it until he completed the drill without losing the ball.
Although I was sad to hear about Brandon Coleman getting cut, Saints rookie wide receiver Te’Quan Smith has squashed any of my worries for this season’s receiver group. He wasn’t able to convert any highlight catches, but every one was tightly contested.
He even caught a deep pass in the end zone from a scrambling Brees, but the ball was popped out of his hands by a defender’s helmet. When Smith did catch the ball, he was tough to tackle. It’s early, but the Saints may have scored their next quality draft pick. Go Jeff Ireland!
If Coleman hadn’t already failed his physical, I would have said Ted Ginn Jr. should be be cut instead. Following a resurgent career year, Ginn reminded us all that his hands are still about as good at catching footballs as pinecone mittens. I counted three big drops, though one was maybe thrown too low for a decent chance at it.
Another dark horse receiver was rookie Keith Kirkwood out of Temple University. Brees targeted Kirkwood often and the two hooked up for two touchdowns, after which Kirkwood emphatically spiked the football. Kirkwood appeared to be a willing student in addition by standing next to Brees on the sideline and asking him questions.
Rookie running back Boston Scott is about my height (5’7”), but his stature didn’t stop him from standing out among giant men. He made a freakishly athletic cut in special teams kickoff drills, and later he took a handoff, bounced off a defender to the outside, and sped to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. He and Shane Vereen appeared more than capable of softening the blow from Mark Ingram’s four game suspension.
It was also worth note that Taysom Hill, not Tom Savage, received most of the second team snaps. At one point while escaping the pocket, Hill took off downfield like a USFL era Steve Young and showed off some serious wheels Saints fans don’t see often from a traditional pocket quarterback like Drew Brees.
The true stars of practice, however, were the defense. Linebacker Craig Robertson and defensive backs Sharrod Neasman and Marshon Lattimore nearly intercepted passes from either Brees or Tom Savage, and defensive end Cam Jordan appeared to force a sack on Brees as well.
On two different occasions, the entire defense ran the length of the field to the opposite end zone to pose for a group pic following interceptions by cornerback P.J. Williams and safety Marcus Williams. Following the diving interception by Marcus Williams, a still competitive Michael Thomas ran over to snatch the intercepted ball right back.
It was also powerful to see owner Gayle Benson enter the field without her husband Tom. She spent more than 15 minutes I would say talking with fans and signing memorabilia for them.
Following practice, players hung around for interviews and autograph signings. I got to hear a little bit from defensive end Alex Okafor who has returned from an Achilles tear. He was definitely excited for a change in the monotony of training camp on Airline Drive.
“You know, camp, you got the same exact schedule every single day. So it’s absolutely a grind, so anytime you get a chance to come out here with a change of scenery, change of environment, brings a little more energy. A little more competition.”
When asked if he was surprised at the speed of his recovery Okafor responded, “Um no, not at all. Ever since I got hurt, talking to the doctors, talking to other guys that have rehabbed it. If you stay on top of your treatments, stay on top of your rehab, they tell you you don’t lose anything from it.”
Bobby Hebert asked Okafor if the coaches had him on a pitch count of snaps as he recovered. “We haven’t even talked about that. Right now we just workin’ one day at a time. I’m still workin’ on my pitch count in practice.” Another reporter asked if he had experienced any setbacks. “No no no. It feels great so far. Everything has been smooth. No setbacks. I feel great.”
Head coach Sean Payton echoed Okafor’s confidence in his ability to return to form and stated the player’s due diligence as the main reason why. “Alex has been here 24/7.” Payton also commented on the stellar play of the defense, though one could gather he doesn’t LOVE the group pic moments. “A little bit of sarcasm in their celebration, but I’ll take it.”
Finally, Payton gushed over the maturity of safety Marcus Williams whose missed tackle ended the Saints playoff hopes last season. “His growth and his ability is outstanding. He’s a tremendous worker and he’s smart.” From the way Williams has responded since that play, I totally agree.
The field was now almost empty, but one player remained in the far corner of the field still signing autographs. Number 9 showed up first and left the field last. After several years of mediocrity, the Saints feel like contenders once more, but some things, like Brees’ leading by example never change.