At the Residence Inn Hotel in Oxnard, Calif., 53 miles north of Los Angeles on the cool Pacific Coast. Three reasons the Saints are here for a week before playing the Raiders in Oakland over the weekend:
One: Coach Sean Payton wanted to keep the team in training-camp mode for another few days after losing all organized practices in the offseason because of the lockout.
Two: The weather; after dealing with heat-index temperatures of about 110 degrees back in New Orleans, it was 78 and cloudless for the afternoon practice today. "I actually underdressed for practice yesterday,'' Payton told me. "It was chilly.''
Three: Bonding. Lots of new guys here, and Payton thought another week getting to know each other would be beneficial. GM Mickey Loomis concurred, and owner Tom Benson footed the bill (I'm guessing it costs about $125,000 total to come out here for a week).
What his mates say is how impressive he's been with the pads on -- he's fast padded up, and even in "thud'' practices, where tackling isn't permitted, he runs with power and a strong forward lean. He'll split carries with Pierre Thomas early, with Thomas getting the bulk while Ingram works into the lineup. "Ummm,'' said Loomis this afternoon, "how do I temper my enthusiasm with Mark? He's looked terrific.''
"I'm enjoying the food a lot,'' said Payton. Don't blame him. The Residence Inn staff has done a fine job, if my lunch is any indication: Turkey burger on an outdoor grill with a slice of cheddar, with lettuce and tomato ... giant Diet Coke in a Shaun Rogers-sized Styrofoam cup. Excellent turkey burger. Hit the spot. Luckily, with the property adjoining a golf course and foursomes playing through for the entire lunch period, I never got hit with a Maxfli on the spot. Grade: B-plus. I'm a sucker for a good grilled turkey burger.
The bad: opening at Super Bowl champ Green Bay. The good: getting a mini-bye-like, 10-day break after that game ... the fact that the final four games in a tough division like the NFC South are manageable: at Tennessee, at Minnesota, and then finishing at home with the Falcons and Panthers. If the Saints are sniffing the pennant in December, the late schedule favors them over Tampa Bay and Atlanta.