CINCINNATI — Drew Brees called the Saints together before the start of practice on Tuesday, an uncharacteristic move by the quarterback to make sure that a team with so much experience in dealing with distractions was ready to handle the latest one.
The Saints practiced on the Cincinnati Bengals’ grass fields downtown on a sunny, 87-degree afternoon while Hurricane Isaac bore down on New Orleans, finishing their preseason the way their entire offseason has gone. It’s been one thing after another.
“A lot of this has been swirling around us and now all of a sudden, we’re together and let’s make sure we’re out here with a purpose,” Brees said, summing up his speech to the team. “It’s to get better, not just to run around and run some plays.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, great leadership. Everybody understands we’re going to weather the storm literally and find the way to make the most of it and make a positive out of a tough situation.”
The Saints were forced to scramble when Isaac set course for New Orleans. They played a preseason game on Saturday night, then rearranged their plans and spent Sunday and Monday evacuating their families and preparing their homes for the storm.
They’ve been through this drill several times already. The Saints (No. 9 in the AP Pro32) played their entire 2005 season away from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. They practiced in Indianapolis the week before their 2008 season opener after Hurricane Gustav forced an evacuation.
Needing a place to practice for their final preseason game on Thursday in Tennessee, the Saints found enough open hotel rooms in Cincinnati and received the Bengals’ permission to use the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium and work out on the adjacent fields.
Most of the team flew into town on Monday night. A few players arrived on Tuesday morning after evacuating their families. Brees drove his family to Birmingham, Ala., then flew to Cincinnati on Tuesday morning.
When they weren’t in meetings or practice, players were on their cell phones or watching the storm’s progress on television.
“I’m glued to the TV, just trying to see where that storm’s tracking and how strong it is and what the projections are,” Brees said. “The crazy thing is we’re going to play a game in Nashville and by Thursday evening, the (remnant) of the storm is supposed to be there. So you can’t really escape it.”
The Saints held a team meeting on Tuesday morning, followed by practice and another meeting. They planned a light workout on Wednesday morning before flying to Nashville for a game that will mark another transition for the team.
Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season as part of the Saints’ bounty scandal. Assistant Joe Vitt took over on an interim basis, but will start his six-game suspension next week. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be in charge while Vitt is away.
In addition to handling the Saints’ hectic week, Vitt is figuring out how to turn things over to Kromer during the final preseason game.
“Really, I’m phasing out and he’s phasing in,” Vitt said. “His role will expand in the game on Thursday night. This is really the second phase of the transition that’s going to have to take place.”
So much has happened to the Saints in the offseason because of the bounty scandal that the schedule and travel changes didn’t seem to bother them very much.
“There is always adversity, there is always something that happens,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “This year it happened in the offseason.
“There is always going to be something, but I think the staff has been proactive on speaking about you’ll be judged based on how you handle that. Some teams handle the adversity by tanking. Some teams handle the adversity by rising to the occasion. I think we’ve been pretty successful of that here in the past. This is just another one of those things.”
Strief grew up in nearly Milford and took a few players out to a local chili parlor when they arrived on Monday night. He was having a ribs restaurant supply food on Tuesday.
Safety Roman Harper considered it part of being with the Saints.
“We are the best team in the league at mid-stream adjustments,” Harper said.
The Bengals were leaving the stadium while the Saints arrived on buses Tuesday. Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who lives in Louisiana, was hoping to get in touch with some of the Saints during their brief visit.
“I know some of the guys up here and will try to reach out to them,” Whitworth said. “They’ve had to deal with a lot over the years. It’s just another year or another something that’s probably made them as tough as they are as a football team, all the adversity they’ve overcome.”