NEW ORLEANS — The NFL offseason is just getting under way, but there’s already reason for Saints fans to be encouraged.
No, the Saints haven’t had a chance to add any significant players in free agency. The draft is still months away. We don’t even know all the specifics of the schedule, though we do know the opponents and sites.
But it feels like coach Sean Payton is serious about dragging this team out of the funk of three consecutive 7-9 finishes.
We got our first and strongest signal to date shortly after New Year’s when Payton fired five assistant coaches, most notably three long-time lieutenants in Joe Vitt, Greg McMahon and Bill Johnson. All three had contributed to a lot of success earlier in Payton’s tenure but the recent performance in their particular areas — Vitt’s linebackers, McMahon’s special teams and Johnson’s defensive line — suggested they were partly responsible for the ongoing stagnation.
Those moves demonstrated that after three straight losing seasons, Payton had moved beyond the notion that the drop-off was an aberration, which might have been understandable after one failure or even two but not three.
As Payton filled the vacancies on his staff he turned to Curtis Johnson, who like the aforementioned trio had been a big part of the Saints’ heyday under Payton, to be his senior offensive assistant and wide receivers coach.
Curtis Johnson, unlike the aforementioned trio, was not part of the stagnation, having spent last season as the wide receivers coach with the Chicago Bears and the four seasons before that as the head coach at Tulane. In fact, Johnson figures to be rejuvenated as he returns to his hometown and the place where he established himself as an NFL assistant.
And finally the Saints have decided to hold their 2017 training camp at their Metairie headquarters, ending a three-year stint at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
Because the string of losing seasons coincided with the relocating of training camp — especially to a place that is known for being luxurious and not Spartan — it’s easy to say there’s a connection between the two.
It’s unlikely the location of the training camp had much of a bearing — if any — on the won-lost record the last three seasons. But the decision to abandon the resort and reconnect with the local fan base, which is able to attend several training-camp practices, sends a message that the organization is starting at the grassroots level as it tries to recover from a three-year malaise.
The move also sends a message to a team featuring a lot of young players and one that hasn’t always looked like it had a winner’s edge, especially coming out of the gate, that things are changing and more is expected.
It’s understood that the change of venue won’t mean much if the front office doesn’t make astute personnel moves in both free agency and the draft after shortcomings in both areas contributed far more to the string of losing seasons than The Greenbrier ever did.
So the Saints have a lot of work to do if they’re going to exceed seven wins next season, let alone make the playoffs, but given the limitations of what any team can do in January and February it’s fair to say the offseason is off to a good start.
And given what happened to the Falcons in the Super Bowl, this already looks to be the second-most enjoyable offseason ever for Saints fans.