After dysfunctional 2014, Saints plan to turn clock back to 2006

Zach Strief said the Saints' leaders failed to address the dysfunction that plagued the team in 2014. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A year ago at this time, the New Orleans Saints were fielding questions at the start of training camp about Super Bowl aspirations and whether they might have the best roster in franchise history.

The tone has changed considerably this summer.

The 2014 season spiraled into dysfunction like never before in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era: both a cause and effect of the losses that mounted in their 7-9 season.

Some of the issues that have been reported since last season include at least two pregame fistfights between players, more people showing up late for meetings and flights than usual, players being disciplined for unspecified violations, clashes between players in the locker room and poor communication and chemistry on the field.

And coaches and veteran leaders have lamented letting it happen on their watch.

"It's not that it's always beautiful, clean sailing and we sing, 'Kumbaya,'" Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said Thursday. "But I think what we saw last year was just kind of a loss of respect for each other in the locker room."

The Saints, who kicked off their 2015 training camp Thursday, have since made dozens of changes, from the roster to the coaching staff to the front office to the playbook -- culminating with the release of embattled linebacker Junior Galette earlier this week.

The guys who remain know they messed up, too -- starting at the top with Payton.

"Shoot, anytime you get hit in the mouth and maybe you don't have the success that you expect to have ... it fuels the fire," Payton said.

"One of the things that motivates people is that fear of not having success, and it'd been a while," said Payton, who hadn't personally missed the playoffs since 2008 (he was suspended in 2012). "But you know what? That's the team we were, and that's how we coached last year, and it wasn't really good."

The positive? Last year's collapse can serve as a wake-up call for a team that had gradually started to drift after nearly a decade of sustained success.

This summer, we've heard more references to 2006 than ever from the Saints. That was the year Payton, Brees, Strief and a handful of others arrived and built their culture from the ground up.

"You kind of have eras with your team," Brees said. "I was told one time that you play long enough in this league, and this is Year 15 [for me], you end up playing on about four or five different teams.

"So there's times where you just take for granted maybe the fact that everyone just knows. They know what happened at Millsaps (the Mississippi college where the Saints held training camp from 2006-08), they went through it and they were kind of molded because of that experience. They understand the culture, they understand what the signs around the facility mean, and where they came from and why they're there.

"So you almost have to kind of rewind, start back over, like in '06 where we're coming in and it's a clean slate, start fresh, everybody has something to prove, and we're here to compete, we're here to grind, and don't take anything for granted."

Brees described last year's issues as "for the most part, some youth and maybe some immaturity and maybe some lack of mental toughness at times."

"We just never clicked as a team," Brees said. "A lot of uncharacteristic things happened to us offensively. Mistakes being made where you're just like, 'That's not us.' Turnovers happening where you're like, 'That's not us. Not in that situation." And I know the defense would say the same thing."

Strief said he and Brees have talked about making it their responsibility to speak up more quickly this year when they "see something that isn't right."

"Last year I know I said a hundred times that I blame leadership," said Strief, a captain, who was lumping himself into that category. "There were signs that we should've caught. ...

"That stuff has come up before, I think it just happened more. And I think when you're 7-9 and playing lousy, it's gonna magnify all those issues."

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis stressed that, "I don't think we're dysfunctional at all as an organization."

But, he said, "I think there were some things that we didn't anticipate last year on our team that we had to address, and I think we've done that. I think we'll see the results of that in the coming season."

Overconfidence was also an issue, especially among the young defense that had been ranked fourth in the NFL in 2013 and was highly touted last summer. That's one problem that took care of itself, though, since the team got knocked so hard off its pedestal.

"Last [training camp] we had so much going for us at the time, we were riding in high and we thought high of ourself. After you have a year like last year, everybody's back to ground zero," said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was coming off of his first Pro Bowl last summer and talked about bold aspirations like 16 sacks.

"Whether you thought you were great or legendary or whatever you want to call yourself, you have to refocus yourself to getting back to the basics and getting back to what we do best."