'Prove 'em right': Saints embrace high expectations

Payton doesn't take Brees for granted (1:39)

Saints head coach Sean Payton shares how he and QB Drew Brees have navigated 13 years in the NFL together. (1:39)

METAIRIE, La. -- There is no tried-and-true method for dealing with the "burden" of high expectations.

In many ways it's easier for a coach to walk into a meeting room on the first day of training camp and proclaim, "Nobody believes in us." But motivational speeches aren't quite as simple when people are widely anointing your team as a Super Bowl contender and seven of your players just made the Pro Bowl.

In the past, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has mostly preferred to instruct his players to "tune out the noise." He famously filled the locker room with mousetraps one year and proclaimed "Don't eat the cheese" as a way to remind his team not to fall into the trap of outside praise.

This year, however, Payton took a different approach. His message to the players when they arrived for training camp last week was, "Prove 'em right."

"It's a great question, because I think you can go two ways with it," Payton said on ESPN this week when asked for his approach. "And we've been in this position before, and maybe not had the success we had hoped to have when we were picked in 2014 to be one of those teams.

"We've kind of embraced it and looked at it -- first as a division, and understanding how competitive the South is right now, with Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay. But at the very first meeting, we talked about, 'Prove 'em right.' Oftentimes you hear that saying, 'Prove 'em wrong,' when you're not getting maybe picked to where you think.

"But that means a complete commitment by everyone, when it's 105 degrees like (the heat index at Sunday's practice). And that's challenging. But I do think that leadership, the type of guys we have in the locker room, will be ready for that challenge."

That last part is really the most important part of the Saints' approach -- "the type of guys we have in the locker room."

Let's face it, motivational slogans aren't really what determines the success or failure of a football team. More importantly, the Saints have made it a big priority in recent years to rebuild the character and culture of their locker room.

Along with their emphasis on veteran leadership, players have insisted both publicly and privately that they like the work ethic of young breakout stars such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, Ryan Ramczyk and others. Thomas, Kamara and Lattimore have all insisted they won't let the early success go to their heads and they are each determined to become an all-time great or a "legend" by getting better each year.

Conversely, that was the area that let the team down in 2014 under very similar circumstances (a young team coming off of an 11-5 season, surrounded by Super Bowl hype).

The Saints were counting on a lot of young breakout players in 2014 after they released many of their longtime veteran leaders all at once (Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles).

But that left a leadership void that was even more costly than the team anticipated when things didn't start off well. And the team imploded -- with ugly low points like fistfights in the locker room -- and finished 7-9.

So the Saints responded in 2015 with a major roster overhaul, releasing some of the guys who were character or chemistry concerns and loading up on draft picks. (It's worth noting that not everyone traded in 2015 was a character concern. Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, for example, were traded in part because of how much the Saints could get in return).

As a result, only six players on the current roster played a snap with New Orleans before 2015 and have remained on the team since (QB Drew Brees, punter Thomas Morstead, DE Cameron Jordan, RB Mark Ingram, OT Terron Armstead and TE Josh Hill).

"Well, [there was] similar talk [in 2014]. And yet, completely different locker room, completely different circumstances," Brees said. "We felt like we were there and ready to take the next step. And yet, that offseason we lost [some] pretty incredible leaders and highly productive players out of the locker room on both sides of the ball. And it just changed the culture a little bit, and it changed the dynamics a little bit. And looking back on it, we realized that. At the time we felt like, 'We're young, we're talented, guys are ready to step up.' And unfortunately that just wasn't the case.

"I'd say the difference this year is we haven't lost veteran guys, but we've actually gone out and acquired some more veteran leadership and guys that are great in the locker room (linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman, cornerback Patrick Robinson, tight end Benjamin Watson and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, among others). And we've got this young talent that is continuing to develop.

"But it is about making sure that you have the cultural foundation -- which we did not have in 2014, but I feel like we have this year. But we have to continue to cultivate it."

Center and team captain Max Unger -- another valued leader who was acquired in that blockbuster Graham trade in 2015 -- said it shouldn't be that hard for the Saints to feel hungry at this time of year. Especially in this heat.

"I mean, this is tough, it's almost 100 degrees out here. This is no joke right now. And I think that is a pretty good way to kind of rein those expectations in, to be honest with you," Unger said. "It's funny, because right now we're at the bottom of the mountain, right? It's hard to look straight back up there after what we did last year. There is momentum in the sense that we know what we have the capability to do. The hard part is not letting that cloud the work that you have to do in training camp.

"[But] this is the situation that you want to be in. You want the expectations to be high. For an organization and a fan base and a city, the expectation is to win games. We're having this conversation now -- as we should have it every year. We would like to think that this is how you're supposed to operate as a team, with these expectations in mind."

Last but not least, the Saints are also plenty motivated by the way last season ended.

This isn't exactly a "Super Bowl hangover" situation. The Saints still feel like they have plenty of unfinished business after their heartbreaking last-second loss in the divisional round of the playoffs, courtesy of the "Minnesota Miracle."

When asked how he can possibly get better after he was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time last season, Jordan said, "Isn't it because of the season like last year?"

"Because we fell out of the playoffs the way we did, I have nothing but the highest ambitions to better myself in every facet of my game," Jordan said. "I mean, we're here to win championships. I feel like now we got, what, T-Mo [Morstead] left and Drew that's won the Super Bowl? I gotta join them."