On the first day of training camp, there were story lines galore. New players finally putting the pads on, fresh faces patrolling the sidelines, a "new" location for training camp, a quarterback coming off one of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history, and a star running back who just returned from an eye-opening trip to Africa that he said has helped him gain a new perspective on life.
But in the words of one reporter, "there is only one story today that Saints fans care about today: Gregg Williams."
Williams, of course, is the Saints' defensive coordinator and one of the most respected defensive minds in the game today, and the new "defensive architect" in town, and while he claims his job isn't akin to that of a miracle worker's, he is at least viewed by many, including his own players, as a major reason for optimism as the Saints head into the 2009 season.
Once team drills began, defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis and Will Smith/Kendrick Clancy.aspx">Kendrick Clancy flanked the interior of the Saints' starting defense, with defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith manning the bookend positions. The starting linebackers were Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle on the outside, and Jonathan Vilma in the middle, with newcomer Darren Sharper lining up next to Roman Harper at the safety spots. Randall Gay and Tracy Porter each earned a starting spot on the first day under the hot sun and scorching heat index that made it feel like 105 degrees on the grass fields for the two hour and ten minute practice. And while the starting unit mirrored that of the team's depth chart, Williams regularly rotated players in and out in different packages and also implemented several varied looks on a regular basis.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for the second-most yards in a single season in 2008 when he racked up an astounding 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns, admitted that Williams is going to present some issues for the Saints' offense this training camp.
"He is a very aggressive play-caller," Brees said of Williams after practice. "I can say without a doubt that this is going to be an exceptionally competitive camp. They (the defense) are coming after us on offense, and it's only going to make us better."
Brees went on to say that he welcomes the challenge the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills presents to the not only the quarterback, but the entire offense. "In my mind, it's a competition and a challenge," said Brees. "He is making me, and all of us on the offense, better players."
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton summarized what Williams has brought to the Saints' defense, "I think they (the players) are all in," Payton said. "I think out players are excited and certainly there is a lot in regards to scheme, in regards to the change from what we did before, but I think they want to be coached hard and I think they're excited about the opportunities."
"Players want to have success," Payton added. "You guys have seen great defenses that have been pressure-oriented. We talked recently about the death of (Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson and what he created there over a number of years and the problems that he created. Then you can turn around and talk about some of the great Tampa Bay defenses that swarmed to the ball but played with a different type of philosophy. I think it comes down to pursuit, fundamentals, and personnel with the right scheme."
Fujita maintains that all the work and meetings the defense has put in during the off-season finally had an opportunity to unveil itself today in front of 2,303 plus fans during the morning session. "It's nice, in a way, to finally put the pads out here and play real football. Granted it's hot and there are times where it's just going to be grueling, but this is exciting being a part of this defense."
"There are so many different things that we are doing," Fujita continued. "Make no mistake, there is a feeling of uneasiness out there, because we are trying to get it right and make plays. But I think it's a good thing."
His linebacking counter-part, Shanle, said, "It's a very aggressive approach he's brought. If I had to sum up the biggest change, it would just be the overall attitude of our defense that has changed. There is no sitting back, everyone is going hard and getting to the ball. If you don't do it, he will find someone that will."
Second-year defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who is coming off an impressive rookie campaign, said he sensed the fans' enthusiasm and encouragement, and cited the defensive players energetic approach as a reason for their hopefulness. "The excitement we have out there is something that I can tell the fans are feeling and they are feeding off of us."
Running back Reggie Bush, a threat from a variety of roles and a player who the team is counting on for a big fourth year, said he is inspired by what Williams has brought to the table. "I love competing against what he is calling, it's awesome," Bush said. "He has the guys attacking and just as he did during the mini-camp and the OTA's, the players are going after the football and trying to create turnovers. From our perspective, it sharpens our ability to protect the ball and not turn it over. As soon as we get our hands on the ball, they are poking at it, trying to pry it out. You always have to be alert, just like in games."
Williams, who will meet with the media following this afternoon's practice, might not feel like a miracle worker, appears to have already started to the craft a story. And in the eyes of the Saints' defensive players, it could be a top-ten best seller this summer.