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New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton adjusts to unprecedented preparation

'It's the antithesis of training camp'

New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton doesn't much care what you call the current run-up to the NFL regular season, as long as you don't refer to it as "training camp."

"From a schedule standpoint, it's not training camp," Payton said Wednesday, during a teleconference. "We're not allowed meetings at the hotel, so the schedule won't be the same as training camp. We're limited relative to padded practice, which is different than training camp.

"And so at some point, call it what you want – preseason probably is a better way to describe it – we're not going to be in a training camp environment. And so I think it's important for us, as an organization, to quickly adjust to what's given to us and then prepare the best way we think and make decisions the best way we think to help our football club to start the beginning of the season.

"So preseason, the beginning of the year, practices leading up to the start of the season – all of those things fit what we're talking about. But it's the antithesis of training camp."

The lead-in is expected to pick up speed next week. NFL teams will hold their first padded practices Aug. 17.

"This week is (COVID-19) testing," Payton said. "Physicals take place over the weekend. Monday, we'll start with the weight room and conditioning – there'll be a lot of lifting, a lot of running. We're going to follow the schedule to the 'T,' but it's going to be challenging.

"An hour in the weight room, an hour conditioning and then also meetings and walkthroughs, that'll all begin on Monday. That'll take place for the better part of six days, seven days. (The) following Wednesday, we'll have helmets and jerseys and we'll still be in walkthrough mode.

"And then begin full-speed, OTA-type practices for the better part of a couple days. And the pads begin on the 17th. So, we'll take full advantage of that. We'll be in full pads every day that we're allowed."

Until the pads are introduced, Saints players can expect rigorous conditioning and weight work. When Payton told players there would be no offseason activities – no OTAs, minicamps or workouts at the facility – he advised them to return for training camp in the best shape of their lives.

Likely, that work soon will be unveiled.

"I'm going to tell you this: The amount of running and lifting they're going to do is going to be significant," Payton said. "Again, this is their schedule. This isn't our schedule. This is the union's schedule, this is the management council's schedule. This is not the schedule recommended to those parties by our coaches. So we've got the schedule, we'll follow it to a 'T.' "

Given the uncertainty triggered by the pandemic, and the relatively recent receiving of the agreed-upon protocols, Payton said he and his staff still are mapping out New Orleans' schedule.

"We're just digesting what we've got relative to the management council and the players' union," he said. "So you sit back and you wait for that to be ironed out and they hand out the protocols, and you begin to put your plan in place."

The Saints benefit from having a veteran coaching staff and roster. Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and quarterback Drew Brees all are entering their 15th seasons in New Orleans, a familiarity that helps drive the offense. And defensively, veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins will join a group of holdovers whose experience in the system ranges from two to five seasons.

"We've had shortened offseasons before," Payton said. "When the players were locked out in 2011, there were no offseason (activities). Guys came back in good shape.

"I expect our players to be in very good shape when we see them. Their physical conditioning and their physical preparation should not have been affected during this. We made a point early on to tell them that, regardless of what happened, we kind of saw ahead of time that there wasn't going to be a chance for minicamp or OTAs.

"But I expect the players to be in outstanding shape. It's their livelihood."

Payton also said he foresees the league having to suspend games due to positive tests.

"I don't anticipate separating quarterbacks or separating certain position groups," he said. "We're going to be smart relative to how they're lockered. I think that the key is, hopefully, you can stay as healthy as possible.

"(But) I won't be surprised if some games are – there'll be some suspended games, though. There'll be some teams that have players at one position group where they just won't be able to play the game. That's part of the deal. I think the league understands that."

Too, it's understood that this year presents a unique situation for all teams.

"The challenge, it's simple," Payton said. "You can put up all the shields you want in the lockers. You can move the chairs six feet apart. We can walk around and when we go to eat, stay in our six-feet lines. But for two hours, two-and-a-half hours every day, we're playing tackle football. And so, that's the challenge we have this year."

All the norms are sidelined – including, for Payton, the words that used to categorize this time of year.

"There's nothing about this that's like training camp," he said. "So we're going to approach it differently in that, we're going to have to evaluate – which we always do – during the practice sessions.

"We can create environments which are more like scrimmage environments in our padded practices. We'll have to do some of that. But this will be entirely different than what a training camp would be like.

"So I think one of the things is looking at it differently, and we're doing that as we begin to put together our schedule between now and when we open up at home versus Tampa Bay."

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