- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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METAIRIE, La. – If you believe in omens, you might be able to view what happened to the New Orleans Saints on their first day of training practice as a wonderful thing. It just didn’t start off that way.
Almost fittingly, it all began with heavy clouds, rain, lightning and thunder. The afternoon storm got so bad that at one point, the metal guards surrounding the ceiling sprinklers in the media room fell to the floor. Consider all that a synopsis of what might have been the worst (or at least most challenging) offseason an NFL team ever has faced.
You know the story. In March, the NFL said the Saints had been running a bounty program for three years. Suspensions of coaches and players followed and it seemed like the Saints were in the news every day -- and for all the wrong reasons.
It got so bad that even die-hard Saints’ fans started taking shots at franchise quarterback Drew Brees, who’s been the most beloved figure in New Orleans in recent years, maybe ever. Brees signed his contract almost two weeks ago and all the clouds were supposed to be gone Thursday when the Saints hit the practice field. They weren’t.
“We were looking forward to getting out in front of our fans today,’’ assistant coach Joe Vitt said. ”Those are people that carry us through times.’’
The fans didn’t get to see practice. The storm was so bad that the Saints had to move practice indoors and close it to the public. Even indoors, you could still hear some thunder. And you could see some figurative clouds as safety Roman Harper, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and linebackers Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas rolled into practice about 45 minutes after it started.
They had been excused. Each of them spent part of the day at a courthouse testifying on behalf of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is fighting to get an injunction that would stop his season-long suspension. Vitt also testified, but he arrived back at the facility about two hours before practice.
“This was planned,’’ Vitt said. “They missed none of what we call teaching situations.’’
Harper, Shanle and Ellis were working with the first-team defense before practice was over and Casillas was getting work as a backup.
About the time they returned to practice, things started looking a little more normal. The Saints ran some nine-on-seven drills and Brees started to hook up with receivers on some spectacular long passes.
“He’s got a lot of pent-up frustration,’’ Vitt said. “This is the first time he’s played since (a playoff loss at) San Francisco.’’
The offense started looking sharp and the defense had its moments.
“We’ve been together a long time,’’ All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. “Everything is fluent with us. Everything is smooth motion.’’
Yeah, but coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season. Vitt’s running the team -- for now.
“He knows how this machine runs,’’ tight end Jimmy Graham said.
But Vitt’s going to have to step aside (and hand the top spot off to someone else) at the start of the season, because he’ll be suspended for the first six games. You can’t, in any objective way, say the Saints are in for a normal season.
“I think we go along here and just keep adjusting,’’ Brees said.
Maybe the Saints already are adjusting and maybe, as Vitt said, they’ve done everything they can to prepare for all the unique circumstances they’ve faced and will continue to face.
The opening practice was far from normal for many reasons. But, when all was said and done, the Saints looked as sharp as a team can on its first day of training camp. That’s why we’re going back to omens.
As the Saints walked out of their indoor facility and into their locker room, the storm was gone. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.