METAIRIE, La. -- After two weeks and six organized team activities, things are much more normal for the New Orleans Saints than they were at this time exactly a year ago.
With coach Sean Payton back from his bounty suspension, the Saints feel more comfortable and they're practicing with an eye on the 2013 season instead of wondering what lies ahead in an uncertain future.
Some of the more established players are quick to note that it's the first time since the spring of 2009 that the Saints have had a "normal" off-season.
After winning Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010, they had a celebration-filled and compressed off-season, yet managed to win 11 games and get back to the playoffs. That was followed by the lockout of 2011, which forced the players to work out on their own all spring and summer.
The big one was the pay-for-performance system that sidelined Payton for the 2012 season, leaving the Saints to be coached by a tag-team system of Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt -- not to mention the sometimes-contentious contract negotiations between the team and Drew Brees.
By comparison, the winter and spring of 2013 have been rather quiet and, as second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks pointed out, "There are no more dark clouds lingering over us."
"We've been looking forward to this for a while," a smiling Brees said after a recent OTA practice session.
"There is just something about getting in the locker room with the team and just watching it all come together. We got the new defensive scheme and we're working on new wrinkles. This is the time of year where you watch it all come together."
"It's a lot different," four-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans said. "We've got the guy back you know is going to put the hammer down in certain situations. Everything feels more stable."
A leaner Payton seems relaxed after spending the past four months trying to find the solutions for a defense that allowed an NFL season record of 7,042 total yards -- easily the most pressing issue for the team this season.
"I think the number one thing for me is just be what I'm used to in regards to coaching," he said. "Whether that's an extra Red Bull or not, I don't know. But it's good to be back around these guys."
"This has been great," Brees said. "Just getting us back in this locker room in mid-April and just focusing on getting better in the weight room and just being around the guys. Getting back to football ... that's what we do."