WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — As the New Orleans Saints took the field for the first practices of training camp, Drew Brees and some other elder statesmen on the roster talked about respect, trust, and accountability.
It became apparent this offseason that the Saints believe last season's disappointing 7-9 record had less to do with talent than the culture in the locker room.
"Everybody just needs to look in the mirror. It's about trust and accountability," Brees said Thursday. "Each guy has to hold themselves accountable and say, 'Am I the type of teammate that I would want to have?' And if you're not happy with that answer, then you need to make some changes for yourself."
Brees is among just a handful of players left from 2006, when Sean Payton was a rookie coach looking to establish a locker room culture that emphasized character, intelligence and mental toughness. It started with a hot, grueling training camp at Millsaps College in Mississippi, and the Saints, who'd struggled to 3-13 a year earlier, improved to 10-6. New Orleans then advanced to the franchise's first NFC Championship game.
Three years later, the Saints won their only Super Bowl. But the team is much different now, full of players drafted or signed since that 2009 Super Bowl campaign. They weren't around when many motivational props — such as cardboard "Exit" doors to remind players of how easily their stint with the franchise could end — went up around Saints headquarters.
"You just take for granted maybe the fact that everyone just knows. They know what happened at Millsaps. They went through it and they were kind of molded because of that experience. They understand the culture. They understand what the signs around the facility mean, and where they came from and why they're there," Brees said. "So there's times when you have to kind of sit back and say, 'You know what, not everybody on this team has heard that story or that speech or that lesson before.' So you almost have to kind of rewind, start back over, like in '06."
The Saints are now a much different team even than last season, thanks to numerous roster moves Payton made during a busy offseason. Some of the moves were for financial reasons as resources were reallocated to address weaknesses.
But some players' departures — such as that of linebacker Junior Galette last week, had nothing to do with talent, production or money. Galette was the Saints' sack leader last season, and cutting him hurt the Saints financially because of guaranteed money in an extension signed just 11 months ago. But Galette's off-the-field behavior — including a domestic disturbance and apparent involvement in a beach melee caught on video — is under review by the NFL.
Regardless of why players were let go, right tackle Zach Strief said the veteran leaders who remain need to do a better job keeping the team together.
"Last year was just kind of a loss of respect for each other in the locker room," said Strief, who was a Saints rookie in 2006. "Something that we really want to grasp this year is: make sure guys know that your teammates don't have to be your buddies . but you do have to respect that guy and you do have to respect the job he's trying to do."
Strief said he and Brees have also discussed being more responsive when a player's behavior or tendencies don't reflect well on the club.
"The real thing is, 'Hey, let's just be very vigilant,'" Strief said. "If we see something that isn't right, we just address it. ... There were signs that we should've caught (last season), and you look and say, 'That's got to improve.'"
Notes: Players sitting out the opening practice included receiver Marques Colston, safety Jairus Byrd and defensive lineman Glenn Foster, who've all entered training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Also absent were linebacker Davis Tull, cornerback Brian Dixon, and offensive lineman Antonio Johnson, who are on the club's non-football injury list.