At 6-9 and eliminated from the playoffs no matter what happens in their season finale Sunday, the New Orleans Saints know a loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could result in their getting a top 10 pick in the first round of the 2015 draft.
But the Saints realize not every member of a team that lost its chance at the playoffs after losing each of its past five home games will be brought back in the future to chase the franchise’s second Super Bowl title both under coach Sean Payton and in its 47-year existence. They realize it’s possible not every member on the Saints’ roster as it stood heading into Sunday will play again in the NFL after the final whistle sounds.
And that’s why the Saints will try to beat the Buccaneers, even if it knocks them out of the top 10 of next year’s draft to send out any players who are done either in New Orleans or in the league on a winning note.
“In the NFL, we’re all competitors, so to say that we’ll go out and botch a game just so we can move up in the draft, that’s crazy,” said Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, co-captain of a defense that entered the weekend having allowed the second-most yards in the NFL. “That’s not in our DNA to go lay down for anybody. We definitely want to end this year on the right note. For some of us, this will be the last time we play the game. And for others, it’ll be the last time we play together.”
Those outside the Saints may not understand the sentiment. The higher the draft selection is, the wider the talent pool that can help the organization on the field long-term is.
But, because they’re part of a profession so physically taxing that the careers of its practitioners truthfully could end on any given snap, NFL players tend to not look too far forward. And before the offseason, the draft and the roster-building process of next summer’s training camp, there’s the chance to do several things at the expense of the Bucs (2-13).
There’s the chance to avoid registering the fewest wins in a season since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. And there’s the chance to deny a divisional rival they face twice a year the satisfaction of their first win in front of their home crowd since Dec. 8, 2013.
That all may seem frivolous to Saints supporters who want to ease some of the disappointment of the 2014 campaign by seeing New Orleans draft the most highly-touted prospect coming out of college it can. But people in the close-knit pro football industry pay attention to such things, and if the Saints can write 2014 off with a positive performance, they will.
“Constantly, whatever we’re putting on tape is our résumé,” said Payton, who coached the Saints to seven wins in 2007 but was suspended in the wake of the bounty scandal when New Orleans won that many games in 2012. “(That’s true) for players the same way (as it is) the coaches.”
Meanwhile, as it is, pro football players don’t need much to motivate them. They’ll imagine someone disrespected them on the airwaves or in print if they feel it’ll make them run faster or hit harder come game day.
But Saints players who are either within striking distance of a statistical milestone that would or could fatten their bank accounts have plenty pushing them to defeat Tampa Bay. So do any players who want to show they can lead this team to success eventually even if this year didn’t pan out as planned.
Pass-rusher Junior Galette is three sacks away from activating contract incentives that would pay him $6.5 million over the next several years.
Galette said this week he’d be OK without the money if he fell short of the three sacks, but he admitted he’d try for them.
“I’m human,” said Galette, who has nine sacks. “Everybody loves more money.”
Saints running back Mark Ingram has already registered career highs in rushing attempts (212), yards (907) and touchdowns (eight). Yet he’s 93 yards shy of giving the Saints their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
Managing to do that certainly wouldn’t hurt his profile as he’s due to become an unrestricted free agent in March, when the four-year rookie contract he accepted from the Saints expires.
Conceding it was tough stomaching that the Saints didn’t have the season they wanted to, Ingram said, “I’m really trying to finish out the season strong. ... We wish we were going to the postseason, but we just have to finish strong.”
At the end of his second year with the Saints, safety Kenny Vaccaro views Sunday as an opportunity to prove he could handle having his role modified with the maturity of a veteran. Vaccaro started the first 13 games this year at strong safety, but after the Saints surrendered almost 500 yards in a 31-point loss at home to Carolina, he was asked to play nickel defensive back, a spot where he frequently covered slot receivers.
Vaccaro did well in that spot as a rookie. But, in the strictest terms, that could’ve been interpreted as a demotion after his starting at strong safety meant he’d assumed more responsibilities.
“My key thing — ever since that whole thing happened — was show them I can respond,” Vaccaro said. “So this is another game to respond and just leave a last impression in coaches’ minds.”
And neither Vaccaro nor his teammates will hesitate to do that, even if the Saints have to wait a little longer to make their first draft pick in a few months.