White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – The NFL regular season will be a marathon for the New Orleans Saints, 16 games in 17 weeks, beginning Sept. 11 and concluding Jan. 1.
Still, Coach Sean Payton wants the Saints to begin in a sprint, and with good cause.
Consecutive 7-9, non-playoff seasons – the third such result in the last four years, interrupted by an 11-5 mark in 2013 – have given Payton reason to emphasize even more the value of a quick start. And it's an emphasis that Payton noted Wednesday, during his opening news conference for this year's training camp, to be held for the third consecutive year at The Greenbrier.
The team's first practice will be held Thursday, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. eastern.
In those three 7-9 seasons, the Saints played two of their first four games on the road (2012), three of the first four on the road ('14) and three of the first five on the road. They started 0-4 ('12), 1-3 ('14) and 1-4 ('15).
Two of New Orleans' first three games this season are home, and the bye week comes after the fourth game, against the Chargers in San Diego. The last time New Orleans played two of its first three at home, in '13, the Saints started 3-0 en route to a 5-0 start.
"I think it's important for this team," Payton said. "You're always careful as a coach – you've heard me say this, the true 'must' win, is the win that either you're eliminated from the playoffs or you're alive still.
"The '11 team (13-3 overall, 4-1 after the first five games) was pretty good, the first week of the season lost a tough game to Green Bay on the road, obviously came back and won a few games. At some point there's a stretch where you start playing maybe more consistent or winning a stretch of games in a row.
"But I think for this team, without putting a number on it, those first four weeks – we have an early bye – those are important games. When we've looked at '06 (10-6 overall, 3-0 to start) or we've looked at '09 (13-3 overall, 13-0 start) or we've looked at '10 (11-5, 3-1 start), or '11 (13-3, 4-1 start) or '13 – I would say in all those cases, first four or five, we played pretty well."
The emphasis is heightened by the fact that the Saints relatively are a young team, having gradually swapped out age for youth and slipping production for ascending talent.
The top three returning receivers from last season are Brandin Cooks (23 years old in September), Willie Snead (24 in October) and Brandon Coleman (24). Left tackle Terron Armstead just turned 25, the same age as safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Linebacker Stephone Anthony (24) was a rookie last year, defensive end Cam Jordan and running back Mark Ingram both are 27, cornerback Delvin Breaux will turn 27 in October, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (22), receiver Michael Thomas (22) and safety Vonn Bell (21) are all members of the 2016 rookie class.
"I think it's going to be important for this team to play well early on, too," Payton said. "I think the early start – because the key is, there's no limit in regard to what our expectation is internally here. Let's just focus on getting better and that early start, those first four weeks before the bye, will be important for this team, I think. And that's an obvious statement and yet, certainly (true) for this team."
Payton said he also wants to see his team play well in preseason and in dual practices with the Patriots and Texans this preseason. But, he said, he already has the expectation that this team is ready to compete, something he even took note of Wednesday, when the players were involved in a community reparation and restoration job at Villa Park in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., which was severely impacted by a flood five weeks ago.
"The first thing that's going to be important for us is preseason, scrimmages," he said. "The one thing this group has done a good job at is the competitive periods. I know it's a preseason game, but it's going to be important for us to win those as well.
"(Being competitive is important) regardless of what we're doing. Like, I kind of feel like the group working at the park today did a better job than the group working on the homes. You pay attention to who's doing what and how sweaty the shirts are. But that (competition) started in the spring and that's a good thing. That's a habit that has to be better.
"I think it's going to be important to compete and see guys compete. Granted, one of the elements in a preseason game is getting a number of guys playing time, but it's going to be important. That sense of urgency is certainly going to exist with our staff and I think our players already understand (the sense of urgency)."