WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. On the final day of practice before the Saints toss their 'pajamas' (coach Sean Payton's term for no pads) in favor of their typical attire on Sunday, the defense, which is expected to again be among the league's best, wasn't quite yet in top form.
'Yeah, I tell ya, today wasn't our best. That offense was rolling,' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.'We looked at a few things today that didn't look real good that were a little bit new, but our guys are working hard, they're smart, they really want to be great.'
However, it wasn't exactly a bad performance by the defense so much as a strong one from the offense.
'There is an ebb and flow always to training camp,' Payton said.'There's days where, or periods in practice where, one side of the ball does well or the other side doesn't.'
Jimmy Graham looked to be in mid-season form, making several impressive plays during team drills. On one play, backup Ryan Griffin threaded three defenders as Graham spun around to snag the back-shoulder throw with one hand. He proceeded to take it the rest of the way and finish with his signature goalpost dunk that's now been banned by the league.It drew by far the biggest reaction of camp thus far and was a definitive sign that Graham is back with a vengeance.
'Personally I don't think there are many people in this game that can cover Jimmy one-on-one,' linebacker David Hawthorne said. 'If we ever got into a game situation, we'd definitely game plan him.'
Luckily for the Saints defense, defending Graham won't be an issue outside of practice. It does, however, help the defense improve. And in year two of the Ryan regime, it's a unit that feels it can again be one of the best in the league. Naturally, the players are more comfortable in the system with a year under their belts.
Still, no one, including Ryan, is satisfied with last season's No. 4 overall defense, which is why he's expanding it to add new elements. He says there's still a lot to prove, butunderstands it's a process, as do his players.
'We aren't expected to get it all in one day, but over the time of the camp we should before we leave here, have a great hold on what we are supposed to do and make sure we are effective over the season,' defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said.
It's easy to see why the players believe in Ryan. They can relate to him.
'You would think this guy is 25 years old and just got out of college,' linebacker Junior Galette said. 'It's crazy how down to earth the guy is. He just lets us play football.'
The players trust Ryan because he trusts them. Not only does he allow their input, he encourages it.
'That kind of freedom in the NFL is just, I don't think there are too many coaches that let you do that,' Galette said. 'You would think that he would put his pride aside and let a player do what they do, but no, he does.'
Hicks said Ryan commands respect and makes it easy for players to accept his messages.
'He makes it your choice whether you want to be successful or not,' Hicks said. 'When you come out there you have to do what you are supposed to do for the team.That is something that he preaches and that is something that we hold on to.'
A frequent patron of Ms. Mae's, and other local favorites, Ryan has embraced New Orleans and its culture, and the fans have reciprocated. He's become somewhat of a cult hero.
'I'd rather be a hero than a goat,' he said jokingly. 'Hell, I want to make sure we do the right thing.
'I love New Orleans, and it just happens to be an awesome city and they seem to appreciate just a good guy.'