Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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METAIRIE, La. Jed Collins has a theory for why he and his teammates spent more time conditioning and weightlifting during training camp than in the past.

Actually, it's two theories.

The first is that Saints coach Sean Payton spent his year off watching the NFL and realizing just how many physical and well-conditioned teams are coming out on top right now in the league.

'I think that was one of his focuses through camp, was to be mentally strong enough and physically in good enough condition to where in the fourth quarter, we're still the dominant team,' said Collins, one of New Orleans' most physical players the past three seasons.

His other theory, however, may be just as close to correct as the first.

'I think he found a new physicality in himself,' Collins said. 'He personally took a different approach to physical fitness. I think that kind of trickled down to us.'

Indeed, Payton came back from his season-long suspension in as good a shape as he has been in since becoming New Orleans' head coach.

He spent the down time going through CrossFit workouts, an exercise regimen that puts an emphasis on both conditioning and weightlifting.

He brought that back to New Orleans when he was reinstated by the league. Part of the Saints' conditioning test before training camp included CrossFit elements, in fact.

And that might just go back to the last real game he coached, New Orleans' 36-32 loss at San Francisco, a physical, hard-hitting game that ended when safety Roman Harper was overpowered by 49ers tight end Vernon Davis at the goal line.

'The big, physical teams are winning games and you've got to be able to play against those teams,' Saints right tackle Zach Strief said, later adding, 'It has been good for us. The change has been good. It's kept everything knew. It has been a whole different offseason, a whole different type of strength and training regimen for us. I think that it'll help us against those teams.'

So, what has it included?

The Saints haven't cut back on heavy weightlifting since football started in late July. It's common once camp starts to try and maintain strength instead of building it. Payton has the Saints working on building.

That's on top of being in pads longer and more often during camp than usual, Collins said.

'I don't think there's a lot of teams running 100s (sprints) in-season game weeks,' Strief said. 'Now, in college those guys run. But I think at the end of the day, it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the weight room. Let's re-emphasize the weight room. Let's get guys squatting and cleaning and doing heavy lifting again because ultimately, it'll keep our bodies in better shapes.'

More than anything, in other words, the extra work Payton is making the team do now is intended to pay off late in games and late in the season.

'You always want to start fast but it's how you finish,' running back Pierre Thomas said. 'Everybody remembers how you finish and we want to be one of those teams that finishes strong.'

It's all part of Payton's vision of starting from scratch, getting back to what made the team successful in 2006.

Strief said the changes have been for the best, putting all players on their toes as opposed to just the new players. It's easy for veteran players to begin to feel comfortable in their positions on the roster, Strief said.

Payton missing a full year allowed him to come back looking for a fresh start.

'All of a sudden the number of people he needed to that from grew and for a lot of us that have been around, it's hey, do you still have it,' Strief said. 'Ultimately that's good and refreshing as a player, to be tested, to be pushed to your limits. You get to see yourself. I think sometimes over time, you question, do I still have it. And look, anyone on this team at this point, they know that.

'Because we've been tested. We've been tested through this camp.'

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