Nick Underhill: As the Saints conclude their challenging 2015 season, it’s time for change — and a long walk toward an uncertain future _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Saints coach Sean Payton smiles at quarterback Drew Brees after a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Superdome on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015.

The voice on the other end of the line began painting pictures of the future and how things might look in a season or two.

“There is a vision for the team,” the voice said this week. “We had to address the culture in the locker room and make sure that we were looking closely at the type of players that we feel are necessary to win games, and so to answer that, yes. Now, are we where we want to be? No. Obviously, we have to improve upon this record.”

If you close your eyes and push aside the team’s 6-9 record, you can see the vision that the voice — Sean Payton — has for the New Orleans Saints. There’s a way for this team to get better. But to create that image, you have to look past all the uncertainty surrounding this team.

The questions start with whether Payton returns to coach next season, which really is all that matters right now. There’s one more game remaining Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, though the contest largely exists to act as a buffer before the organization and fan base is forced to face the future.

And right now, the future is an inevitable walk across a long bridge engulfed by fog at the midway point, making anything beyond that area invisible. The only reason to trust that the bridge continues on is that Payton’s voice is carrying across the distance, talking about future plans and a brighter tomorrow.

Maybe you trust it, start walking and reach the other side. But maybe you’ll be guided into a false step and immediately plummet toward uncertainty. It’s hard to know what to believe — or if there is even anything to believe in right now.

What’s certain — or almost certain — is that, when the final whistle blows Sunday in Atlanta, things in New Orleans will never be the same.

Something is going to give. It has to.

While the Saints believe they have a plan to return to their winning ways, this team needs to continue getting younger and better. The grace period for being sentimental about a bygone era has expired.

Hard decisions will have to be made to achieve that goal, which means some of the more familiar faces on the roster will be sacrificed. That means some of the last remnants from the Super Bowl team likely will crumble away.

Despite speculation stating otherwise, it would be a shocking development if quarterback Drew Brees does not return, but the fortunes of the other guys who were part of that roster are not as set. It wouldn’t be a shock if punter Thomas Morstead, tackle Zach Strief, guard Jahri Evans and wide receiver Marques Colston (who will not play because of a chest injury) do not come back next season.

Even the players know they could be taking their last walk together as a group.

“Ten (years) is a big number. That is pretty awesome,” Brees said. “That’s really awesome. You never know what the future holds. I think you just try to value these times as much as you can because, at some point, it comes to an end. It does for everybody. (We’ll) just value every second of it while we can.”

While those players have given this team and its city so much, what happens with them, save for Brees, should be secondary concerns. Nothing else really matters until it is known whether Payton will return. All bets are off if the team ends up holding the bag.

If Payton leaves, it could lead to a dangerous chain of events. Perhaps New Orleans no longer appears attractive to Brees, and he refuses to sign an extension. He has done nothing to indicate this is something that could happen, but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind as a remote possibility.

If Brees indicates a desire to play out the final year of his contract without an extension, it would force the Saints to make a hard decision about his future as their quarterback. If he balks, the organization would have to consider its options. That’s not something anyone wants to happen.

While many are thirsty for change, finding a franchise quarterback is among the most difficult things to do in sports. As Strief said this week, there are only five or six of those guys on the planet. Everyone else spends year after year searching for their own. Some never find one.

That’s a position this team — any team — does not want to find itself in. And it’d be even worse to end up there when it could be avoided.

As far as the other players are concerned, if a new coach takes over, who knows who would fit into the offensive or defensive systems, or how they would look to another coach? Everything could change.

Or, even worse, there’s the possibility the Saints end up hiring the wrong guy if Payton decides to bolt. It likely would take a few years to figure that out, and then this process would be starting over in a couple of years.

The Saints managed to find Payton, so they should be given the benefit of the doubt if another coaching search were to take place, but there’s no guarantee it works out as well the second time.

Those thirsty for change for the sake of change should be aware of these things. The Saints could soon find themselves in a very scary, uncertain situation. The best thing for this team next season and into the future is to have the architect of all of this come back to fulfill the next stage of his vision.

When the Atlanta game ends, it will be time to take that walk across the bridge. You can choose to follow the voice on the other side, or you can ignore it and go off on your own.

But those steps have to be taken. It’s unavoidable. Whatever the outcome, all anyone can do is hope all of this leads to a way out of recent disappointments.

The voice, despite some ups and downs over the years, has always found a way to make that happen.