White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. – Swollen expectations greet the New Orleans Saints as they enter Training Camp 2014, partially due to a successful 2013 season (11-5 record, road playoff victory), a strong showing in free agency (signing safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey and center Jonathan Goodwin, among others) and a roster of returnees that is better and more experienced.
Swollen expectations, but not swollen heads.
"Honestly, one of the challenges of a head coach every year is managing the outside – I don't want to use the word 'noise' – but managing the outside when things are going well, and managing that and being guarded," Coach Sean Payton said Thursday, from the team's training camp home at The Greenbrier. "And then when things aren't going well, managing that and staying focused, to not let that derail you.
"This team will be measured not by what people are saying today on talk shows or in newspapers. It'll be measured at the end of the season. That's the great thing about the NFL – you play, you try to win a division, you try to advance to the postseason, you try to go on and win a Super Bowl and you don't have to worry about how you stack up maybe in a BCS.
"It'll be through hard work and we have a lot to do, and we can't get started quick enough."
And General Manager Mickey Loomis echoed those sentiments – early prognostications don't carry much weight.
"I don't pay a lot of attention to that because no one said that in 2009 when we won the Super Bowl (XLIV)," Loomis said. "They weren't saying we had the best roster (that year), and yet in my mind, that was the best result the Saints have ever had. That was our best team ever, right? I don't pay a lot attention to that.
"You still have to come together as a team, you need to have the right chemistry, you have to have the right things happen for your club. There are just so many variables that your roster on paper is just kind of meaningless to us at this point.
"We like our team. We like the guys we have in our locker room. We love our coaching staff. I feel like we've got a great chance to compete going into this training camp, but there are a lot of variables."
And yet, the Saints aren't exactly scurrying away from those expectations.
In fact, shouldering that kind of load is exactly what Payton had in mind when he became coach in 2006, because consistently high expectations is a product of success.
"It's what we wanted," Payton said. "It's trying to change a culture to create an environment where you feel like you have a chance to be successful, a chance to win each season. And with that comes Sunday night games, Monday night games, flex schedule, some of those challenges scheduling-wise.
"But that's part of the deal. If you're playing every game at 1 p.m. (on Sunday) except the one Thursday game the league gives you, then you're probably not having a lot of success. So, they go hand in hand."
Thus, the Saints open practice Friday, taking the first step of journey they hope will end at the point they internally have identified, a trip that should be made easier by the presence of players like tight end Jimmy Graham.
On July 15, Graham, a free agent who was given the franchise player designation this offseason, signed a four-year deal to remain a Saint. Last season, the two-time All-Pro led the Saints in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16).
The deal was struck following an arbitration hearing in which Graham was declared a tight end, rather than a wide receiver.
"I felt confident that both sides were going to come to a resolution," Payton said. "Any contract negotiation – obviously, one of this magnitude – can be difficult and challenging. But credit Mickey and (Graham's agent) Jimmy Sexton and everyone involved.
"It's not unusual that they come down to the final couple of days. It happens year to year. It was great to get that resolved, great to visit with (Graham) the day of (his signing). I think it would be much more challenging if we were sitting here (Thursday) and a situation like that wasn't resolved.
"Everything worked out and obviously, we're excited that it worked out with him prior to training camp."
Said Loomis: "Obviously, each one of these things is unique, and obviously going through an appeal hearing over the position argument was unique. Otherwise, it's a negotiation. We had a tough one two years before with Drew (Brees). These things happen. All these negotiations are tough.
"Obviously, when it's a high-profile guy, more is written about it. Those are personal issues for the player in particular. We understand that, but it's behind us. We're glad to have it done; I'm sure Jimmy's glad to have it done. He's where he wants to be and we have him under contract, which is what we wanted."
Now, the Saints begin concentrating on shoring up a few areas of concern heading into training camp.
"There's a handful of things," Payton said. "Improving our return game in the kicking game. Us finishing – offensively, in the four-minute we had a couple of opportunities this past season - in close games, to win the division at Carolina or on the road at New England, those were tough losses against good teams.
"Defensively, finding more turnovers, finding more opportunities to create fumbles, create interceptions. That statistic every year becomes redundant and yet, it holds up pretty true to form. (And) the challenge of starting four out of six on the road and playing better than a year ago on the road."
Those challenges, and more, will be addressed during training camp and beyond by a team that enters the season with huge expectations.