METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton has been quick to remind anyone who will listen that no team picks up where it left off at the end of the previous season.
He said he planned to remind his players of that after rookies reported for training camp Wednesday and the veterans report July 25.
The Saints started 0-2 last season before rolling to the NFC South title and defeating Carolina in a wild-card playoff game. They appeared on their way to the NFC Championship before allowing a stunning 61-yard touchdown pass to Minnesota as time expired, bringing their season to a shocking end.
After falling one routine tackle short of playing for a Super Bowl berth last season, the Saints are confident of another playoff run. But they also realize there's a lot of work to be done if they're going to have a similar opportunity to the one they squandered last season.
"There's nothing promised the following season after success," Payton said. "The message will be that handling adversity is just as important as handling prosperity."
At this time last year, New Orleans was optimistic that it would improve on the 7-9 record it had finished with each of the three most recent seasons. The infusion of exceptional draft choices in Marshawn Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Williams, whose missed tackle on the Vikings' winning touchdown marred an otherwise impressive season, triggered New Orleans' improvement and put a more youthful team in position to contend this season and beyond.
"I think there are enough veteran players that understand the fine line in our business between a groove and a rut," Payton said. "(Last season) we start off 0-2 and then quickly bounce back with a couple of wins and then get on a little bit of a roll after the bye. And that's how our league is and there's some close games that you look back on that could go one way or the other."
New Orleans again had an elite offense last season, finishing second in the NFL in total offense and producing exceptional balance by finishing fifth in both rushing and passing, thanks in part to Kamara's performance, which earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The defense, which ranked at or near the bottom of the league during the three-year swoon, improved to 17th in total defense. The Saints set out to continue that improvement by signing three defensive free agents in linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Patrick Robinson and safety Kurt Coleman. They also traded up in the first round to draft defensive end Marcus Davenport.
Improving on last year's success will be challenge, but the potential is there.
"Yes, we feel like we've got the pieces in place, but we also understand this is a game of inches and you have got to set the tone now for a successful season," quarterback Drew Brees said. "You have to build the foundation now.
"You have got to develop good habits now and so we understand there's still so much work ahead of us and there's a sense of urgency each and every day to improve and get better and just to stay ahead."