For the first time since the Saints slowly walked off the field at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, New Orleans will take the practice field as a full team.

We've counted down 19 questions that the Saints will encounter on their path back to the playoffs. Now we get to No. 1 and it's the one that people are asking about the most.

1. Can the Saints overcome this offseason?
Undoubtedly the worst offseason in NFL history for any team.

That's what the Saints will deal with as they begin practice today ahead of the 2012 regular season.

From getting over the devastating loss to the 49ers in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs to becoming the Evil Empire because of the bounty scandal to a long, laborious contract dispute with Drew Brees, the Saints had as rough a six-month stretch as any team ever has.

They enter the season with head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma suspended for the entirety of it, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, acting head coach Joe Vitt for six and defensive end Will Smith for four games.

Every week beginning with today's opening of training camp the bounty scandal will be brought up in some way by media from the opposing team or national reporters.

The constant cloud over the program will be there as Payton is not.

Speaking of which, missing Payton will be huge. His understanding of game situations sets him apart from probably 85 percent of the other coaches in the NFL. His motivational ability, while a bit exotic, has worked for most of his six seasons in New Orleans. And his players believe in him, which goes a long way to success.

There's no question that having him away from the players and the decision-making for the final roster and in-season moves will be a detriment to the team.

Half of what the Saints went through would be hard enough to overcome. But all of it? Can it really be done?

The answer is yes and there are few teams better suited to overcome everything than the Saints.

You may wonder about the coaching staff and losing Vitt for six weeks of the regular season. Don't. There's experience there and, as previously written about, Peter Carmichael Jr. should have the offense humming along. Steve Spagnuolo has been a head coach before. There's more stability there than you think.

And the Saints have overcome obstacles, albeit none of this magnitude, before. There was the relocation for Gustav to begin the 2008 season. There was the relocation for the London game in 2008.

But the most important obstacle they have overcome was last season when Payton went down with the knee injury. Vitt took over acting head coach duties then and Carmichael called the offense. The Saints learned to deal with the absurdities of the situation and thrived, winning the final eight games of the regular season and playing arguably as well as they have for any stretch in franchise history.

They'll also be playing with a chip on their shoulders and while each team and player will claim to have a chip, the Saints legitimately have reason to have one. It's them against the world right now and they appear motivated to make the NFL look foolish in its decision to punish them so severely.

Yet, the thing that we keep coming back to is Brees' uncanny ability to cull the best out of his teammates. Few players are as driven or motivated or lead as well as Brees. He has been on a record-setting pace for the past three years for a reason and he earned that largest per year contract in league history.

We're not predicting Super Bowl here, at least not yet. But we believe that the Saints have the pieces in place for a postseason push, surprising many outside New Orleans by overcoming the offseason to forget.

--Bradley Handwerger, Sports Reporter

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