Metairie, La. – A hop, skip and a jump across the pond home? Well, not exactly.
The New Orleans Saints landed last night at Louis Armstrong International Airport at 7:30 p.m. and the large traveling party methodically made their way through the immigration process, a lengthy baggage claim ordeal and lastly, customs, before returning to the team's training facility.
The arrival and subsequent dispersal of the traveling party concluded what turned out to 10-day business trip for the Saints, who had departed New Orleans for Charlotte on Saturday morning, October 18 and commenced with the team's 10-hour flight from London's Gatwick Airport to Louis Armstrong International yesterday. The Saints departed their London Hotel at 9:30 a.m. on Monday (4:30 a.m. CT) and buses (or "motor coached" in British terms) to Gatwick. The team then went through standard international departure procedures at Gatwick and departed at 2:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half later than scheduled due to delays in loading the massive 747.
The flight home was long, but uneventful, and witnessed the majority of the traveling contingent catch up on sleep, reading books or watching movies. While the team's players were afforded extra space to stretch out as best they could, some players, such as 6-7, 320 pound offensive tackle Zach Strief, had their own take on matters. "I think it is fair to state, unequivocally, that airline seats clearly weren't designed with offensive linemen in mind," Strief said.
The unloading of the aircraft, was, (to be kind), a rather prolonged process. Once the jet way finally served as a de-boarding option, the majority of the contingent witnessed up to two-hour delays in the baggage claim area with many of the bags finally arriving on various carousels that made jockeying for position almost humorous at times.
Head Coach Sean Payton praised the personnel in the United Kingdom that helped the team during the stay, and also sited the yeoman-like efforts of the Saints' operations, information technology, training staff, video department and equipment staffs during his Monday press conference.
The head coach answered questions regarding a host of topics as they related to the trip and while generally seeming pleased with the result, he also seemed to indicate that there are some areas that he believes could be improved in the future. Payton mentioned that he thought the field at Wembley seemed to give way before and during the game and mentioned some inconsistencies as they related to the team's travel as areas that concerned him.
"Logistically it is a hard thing to do," Payton said of the trans-Atlantic week. "We have stayed in a hotel, quite recently in fact, and didn't have any issues that I would point to. We had some great support with the people in London and the people that assisted our team. But there were some travel-related things that I think could have been a lot better. I will leave it at that."
"I think the things that the New Orleans Saints could control, and I credit the Benson's, Mickey Loomis and Dennis Lauscha, were excellent and handled very professionally and first class," Payton said.
Despite questions to the contrary, Payton elected to try to keep the conversation on-line and centered around the play of the Saints and the upcoming schedule during his press conference.
The third-year head coach covered the X's and O's and touched on both he and the coaching staff's "to do list" in the coming days, the head coach, in essence, boiled it down best when he said, "There are eight games left for us in the regular season. In some ways there is a lot of football left. We set high goals for ourselves but we have to eliminate this 'win one, lose one, win one, lose one' trend we have sort of followed the first half of the season. That, to me, is about becoming more consistent and that's what we need to focus on here-being more consistent."
The Saints' players were afforded their customary Tuesday off today, save for some players that are rehabilitating injuries and others that stopped by to get a workout in on their own. But the majority of players are using the day to re-acclimate themselves into town and get settled after the arduous trip back home.
S Chris Reis, who turned in one of the game's biggest plays when he stripped return man Darren Sproles of the ball that was recovered by CB Usama Young in the second quarter, used the week in England to perfect his British accent and humored his teammates throughout the trip with well delivered quips and quotes. He summed up the week as such, "It was a jolly good and proper time."
Humor and the ability to rest seemed to be the best remedies for dealing with the tediously long flight, but the fact of the matter remained that the situation was made much more palatable on the heels of the team's fourth victory of the season and within eyeshot of the NFC South leading Carolina Panthers (6-2). Each member of the Saints' traveling party seemed to realize the importance of putting on an impressive display of NFL football for the capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium and throughout the week.
"It was a tremendous experience," said QB Drew Brees, who recorded his sixth 300-yard passing game of season with a 339-yard effort on Sunday. "There was a lot of excitement leading up to the game and both teams knew the importance of the game. I am happy the fans were able to witness our game and see how exciting it is."
In the end, the game in London was a "smashing" success, and the team's 37-32 win capped off a week in which each of the team's various departments pulled together to help the football team best prepare for the game against the Chargers. The sellout crowd of 83,000 witnessed a little bit of the NFL's everything on Sunday: high-powered offenses, a key fourth down stop by the Saints' defense, a game-icing interception by LB Jonathan Vilma, and, of all things, a late safety the Saints took to run precious seconds off the clock.
A British journalist opened the team's Wednesday press gatherings by asking Payton and Brees if they thought the game "might be 'an attacking affair.'" Little did he know what would be in store, as the Saints and Chargers didn't allow the loose field nor the damp night air to interfere with a game that witnessed 860 total offensive yards to be gained (the number would have been higher had the Saints not elected to intentionally take a safety late in the game to bleed the clock of time and end up with a 26 yard rushing loss on the play on the stat sheets).
But most importantly from the Saints' perspective, the win paved the way for the team to head into their bye week on a positive note and with the possibility of working with momentum at their backs. In addition to allowing some weary and sore bodies to rest and recuperate for what will surely be an adventurous final eight games of the season. The Saints woke up in this morning in the States with the top ranked offense in the NFL, averaging an eye-popping 403.1 yards per game, some 22 yards per game better than their nest closest competitor, the Denver Broncos (381.9 per game).
The Saints, though now at home, won't return in front of their home crowd at the Superdome until Monday Night, November 24 when the host the Green Bay Packers. But that game is far ahead of the Saints at this juncture and the focus instead shifted immediately after Sunday's game to preparations for the upstart Atlanta Falcons (4-3) in the Georgia Dome on November 9, as well as identifying some areas of concern the Saints' coaching staff will look to address in the coming days.