MERIDIAN — METAIRIE -- After one of the most difficult offseasons in NFL history, the New Orleans Saints opened camp Thursday with eyes on the 2012 season.
And from all indications, the Saints didn't miss a beat despite the bounty scandal and the one-year suspensions of coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Payton and Vilma were suspended for their part in the bounty scandal.
"It was weird not having Sean here," interim coach Joe Vitt said. "It was weird not having Sean here for OTAs, minicamp and the draft.
"It was weird, but it was a good crisp practice with no injuries. This is a process and our first practice was good. This is the first of 17 practices. So far, so good."
The practice marked the return of quarterback Drew Brees, who took the field with teammates for the first time since last season's playoff loss at San Francisco. He waited until July 15 to sign a five-year, $100 million contract to stay with the Saints. The contract gives him the highest average annual pay ($20 million) in NFL history.
Brees' first pass of camp was a 30-yard strike to tight end Jimmy Graham. The second was a perfect throw to wide receiver Lance Moore on a slant route between two defenders.
"He (Brees) was outstanding," Vitt said. "Nobody's eyes lied out there. No. 9 will put the ball on location and give receivers a chance to catch the ball."
The nearly three-hour practice featured 9-on-7 and 7-on-7 passing drills to go with drop-back screens, draws and play-action passing.
Brees completed eight straight passes, including a 60-yarder to Moore, and three of them were for 40 yards or more.
Brees, who set NFL single-season records in 2011 with 468
completions, 5,476 yards passing and a completion percentage of 71.2, said he reported to camp in what he considers the best possible shape.
"This is a lot of fun," Brees said. "This is going to be a great camp. We are competing against each other but we are also on the same team. We are going to have some fun -- no doubt about it.
"It's all coming together and I am excited. I am 208 (pounds) and as strong as I have been since I have been here. I am as fast as I have been and throwing the ball as well as I have. It felt good."
The first practice also marked the return of running back Mark Ingram, who missed the final four games last season with a knee injury.
On his first play, Ingram took a screen pass from Brees and showed no effects of the injury as he raced untouched for 20 yards.
"It felt good for me and the team," Ingram said "It was important for us to get back on the field and it felt great.
"As a team and organization, we could not have handled the offseason any better. We are a team filled with character. Our mindset is on one thing and that's winning the Super Bowl. Anything less than winning the Super Bowl will be unacceptable in our eyes. This was a great step and just what this team needed."