The word is unavoidable now, both a flippant joke to some fans and a half-earnest hope for others who have already turned the page on the 2015 season and turned their eyes to the future.
The same word understandably draws a snarl from players and coaches who still have work to do this season.
That buzzword swirls around a team out of the race — being willing to let off the gas pedal in search of a better draft pick and unconsciously moving thoughts to the offseason — and it means little to a Saints team that has its eyes on breaking a four-game losing streak at noon Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a surging NFC South rival.
“We’re still hungry. No matter what our record might show, we’re still playing for a lot of things,” wide receiver Brandon Coleman said. “We’re not going to tank the season away.”
New Orleans, sitting at 4-8, ranks 14th out of 16 NFC teams, but the Saints remain mathematically alive for a playoff spot — slim hopes that will continue if New Orleans can stop a Bucs team that’s right on the edge of playoff contention behind rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.
Beyond the mathematical possibility of a playoff berth, though, the fact remains that this is the NFL, which plays by different parameters than the NBA and Major League Baseball. In those leagues, guaranteed contracts, an active trade deadline and smaller rosters allow teams to put something other than their best foot forward in the second half of the season — if not by player decisions, then through front-office decisions.
NFL players, from the top of the roster down to the bottom, find themselves constantly fighting for their immediate future.
“Pride, whether you are a veteran guy, (or a younger player) who’s trying to establish himself, even veteran guys have to have something to prove,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “You always have to prove your worth, that you mean enough to this team for them to keep you around. It is a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ business.”
Beyond the internal motivation, though, New Orleans has a more practical reason for keeping its gaze focused on the present.
Despite national speculation that has swirled around the futures of Brees and coach Sean Payton, the Saints are a team that has already gone through a massive renovation in the past couple of seasons.
The most visible faces — Brees, Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis — remain the same, but everything else, from the roster to the scouting department and the front office, has been overhauled.
This is a team trying to build a new identity.
“This is our team; this is a new era,” strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “People need to stop talking about ’09 and all that stuff, because this is a completely different locker room.”
New Orleans’ new direction on offense can be tougher to spot.
With the exception of punter Thomas Morstead, all of the holdovers from the Saints’ Super Bowl team — Brees, receiver Marques Colston, guard Jahri Evans and tackle Zach Strief — play on offense. Veterans like tight end Benjamin Watson and running back Mark Ingram give that side of the ball a more familiar feel.
But the defense has been completely overhauled. Five rookies or first-year players started against Carolina last week.
“Our offensive leadership is still intact; our defensive leadership is young and uprising,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We’ve got great flashes on the young defense, and clearly we need to play with more consistency.”
With all that youth — and there has been a changing of the guard on offense, too, with tight end Jimmy Graham gone and receivers Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead stepping forward — the Saints have learned this season that results may not be as immediate as they hoped.
Jordan, who became the face of the defense over the summer, has seen it firsthand.
“Being not only just a captain, but being part of a line that has six rookies, the patience to learn coming off of one win or two wins or three wins, teaching them there’s still more to come,” he said. “Now we’ve lost three or four games in a row. Now you’re back in the mindset of ‘Every game in the NFL is a battle.’ This is what we do.”
And here’s the secret.
This New Orleans team, despite its 4-8 record, believes in the remade roster it has put together.
Unlike last year, when off-the-field and locker-room issues were the story of the season, this team has remained tight despite a three-game losing streak to start the season and the current four-game losing streak that arrived when it looked like New Orleans was ready to make a playoff run.
“I feel like we are building something really good here with the type of guys we have. Things haven’t quite gone the way we plan, but I think that our ability to show great improvement and show a positive direction as to where we are headed these next four games is crucial,” Brees said.
Both Payton and Brees believe the Saints have found the right mix in the locker room. When the Saints fell to 1-4, the young roster was able to fight back to .500.
The Saints are looking for that kind of gumption again.
“I also think that we have the type of maturity that lends itself to coming to work every day with enthusiasm and positivity and just feeling like we haven’t played our best football; let’s continue to work to see what that looks like and continue to get better and better,” Brees said. “Obviously at the end of the day the result needs to be winning, but let’s see how good we can get by the end of the season.”
Forget about looking to the offseason and what the Saints might look like in 2016.
This group is focused on the here and now.
“We’ve just got to finish,” Snead said. “We might not make the playoffs, but we have a lot of pride in here. A lot of guys want to win and finish strong.”
And they’re not paying attention to what anybody outside is saying.