The New Orleans Saints’ locker room in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday afternoon was already about two-thirds empty by the time the doors opened to those allowed to mill about inside. To call the mood somber would be painting too rosy of a picture.
It was stiff. Players were crestfallen and spoke in hushed tones, when they could find the words at all. The Falcons (6-9) had just given the Saints their burial by dropping them 30-14. And the worst part of it was that many players had not yet heard that the Carolina Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns 17-13, which ended the last of New Orleans’ playoff hopes.
“It’s like a funeral in here,” pass rusher Junior Galette said.
Over in the corner, as his teammates held court, Drew Brees sat at his locker and slowly got dressed. He pulled on a pair of blue-and-white-striped socks, then put on his shoes and sat silently, staring straight ahead.
He didn’t once break his gaze. Not when tight end Benjamin Watson, stood within earshot discussing how the Saints “reaped what they sowed” this season, and not when a member of the equipment crew worked to pick up the laundry scatted on the ground around the quarterback’s locker.
He — like many of his teammates — was despondent. This was a season that began with high hopes. There was talk of Super Bowls and how this was the most talented roster ever assembled in this city. And here the Saints were, pondering their 6-9 record, owners of a fifth consecutive home loss, a zombie team heading into the season finale next Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Where did it all go wrong? Why is it that a team with so much talent never reflected that promise on the field? Why did week-to-week consistency allude this team for so much of the year?
“I can’t right now, I can’t right now,” said Brees (30-of-47, 313 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). “That’s something we’ll reflect on at the end of the season. Right now, we want to be as good as we can be in the next game.”
The problem, as it has been so many other weeks this season, is that the Saints failed to perform up to par in their most recent game. And it’s almost fitting that one of the defining moments that led to New Orleans’ demise will be debated for weeks to come — since everything about this team and how it ended up in this position has been and will continue to be debated.
The play in question occurred during the fourth quarter and closed what was the Saints’ first competent offensive drive of the game. New Orleans was trailing 20-7 but had pushed to the Atlanta 14-yard line when Brees connected with Jimmy Graham over the middle, near the goal line. As Graham fought his way over the goal line, safety Kemal Ishmael ripped the ball from his grasp.
On the field, the play was ruled a fumble. The Saints challenged and, despite replays making it appear the ball might have broken the plane, the ruling on the field was upheld. It was one of those moments where the replay likely would have gone in New Orleans’ favor had it initially been called a touchdown.
Regardless, the Saints were not happy with the ruling.
“Did I think it was a score? Yes,” coach Sean Payton said.
Would the game have changed if the play had been ruled a touchdown? It’s possible, but the Saints had opportunities to get back in the game later and failed to take advantage.
New Orleans forced Atlanta to punt on its next series and responded by scoring a touchdown on a pass to Graham. The Falcons pushed to the Saints’ 49-yard line on their next series but were forced to punt after Brian Dixon and Kenny Vaccaro stuffed short passes on second and third down.
The Saints got the ball back with 2:40 to play, down 20-14, but on second down Brees threw an interception to Robert McClain on a pass intended for Nick Toon. The Falcons added a field goal, and the game ended when Osi Umenyiora strip-sacked Brees and ran the ball back 86 yards for a touchdown.
After the interception, Brees walked off the field crestfallen.
“If you don’t accomplish it when the ball is in your hands,” Brees said, “that’s as bad a feeling as you can have as a quarterback.”
It’s easy to boil down the end of the Saints’ hopes to two plays. But the truth is, the Saints are in this situation because of repeated situational letdowns. Though it stepped up and was the reason New Orleans had a chance to win late, the defense failed to do its job far too often this season. Too many missed tackles, missed assignments and poor coverage.
And Brees’ mistakes have proved costly at times. His pick-six in a 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns hurt, and his fourth-quarter interception in a 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions led to a game-winning touchdown.
So how did the Saints get here?
“You reap what you sow in many respects,” Watson said. “Sometimes it doesn’t come in wins when you work hard. Sometimes there’s other reasons you don’t win. Sometimes you do all the right things and don’t win like you’d like to.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. When you go the course of the season, it’s been a tough one and a disappointing one and one that we regret it happened this way.”
It’s unfair to put too much on any one player, especially Brees, who has posted great statistics, but he certainly has experienced that same bad feeling more than once this season.
And that’s likely what he was thinking about as he sat at his locker, staring straight ahead, numb, in shock — wondering how a season that began with so much hope went so wrong.
The funny thing about hope is that it always comes back if you invite it in. So, looking down the road to next season, does Brees believe this team can reach the Super Bowl?
“I feel like,” he said, “all the pieces are in place here to do that.”