Everywhere else Monday, Who Datians were pretty much resigned to the realization this was neither the team nor the season they’d believed it would be.
But at 5800 Airline Drive, things were positively upbeat.
In the Saints locker, room the players were joking around, maybe a little more than usual. Some were lounging on a couch playing a video game. The rest weren’t going out of their way to avoid talking to the media as is common the morning after a loss.
And outside the locker room, Saints coach Sean Payton was all but handing out attaboys in the wake of his team’s gut-wrenching defeat in Detroit.
“You guys hear me say all the time we are in a race to improve, and I felt like I saw more in that game than we did in the five prior,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell you guys, but pregame, I felt I would be shocked if we didn’t play lights out and win this game. And if we continue to play like we did yesterday and clean up a few of the things, we’re going to be fine.”
Obviously there are times when a team, even a professional one, needs a pat on the back rather than a kick in the butt, especially with Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Green Bay Packers coming to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night.
It doesn’t hurt to be able to blame the zebras, either.
But in delivering his public and private pep talks, Payton was also correct in what he said.
In almost every area of needed improvement targeted during the team’s open date week, the Saints met their goals.
Improve the pass rush? Three sacks after averaging 1.0 in the first five games. Check.
Interceptions? Two, doubling the previous season’s total, which allowed the team to start a series on the opponent’s side of the field for the first time. Check.
Punt returns? A 15-yarder by Brandin Cooks, 10 more than the previous season’s total combined. Check.
Cutting down on Drew Brees’ interceptions? He had only one, down from three in his last game. Check.
Unfortunately, that pick set up the Lions’ winning touchdown with 1:48 left. So erase that check.
Because to win in the NFL, you’ve got to finish.
Or, as defensive tackle Akeem Hicks said Monday, “You’ve got to finish the game. You’ve got to finish the play in practice. You’ve got to finish the run after practice. You’ve got to finish your workout. Finish, finish, finish, finish, finish.”
That inability to finish is why the Saints have lost games by 3, 2 and 1 points. Reverse two of the three, and instead of 2-4 you’re 4-2 and atop the NFC South.
That was another message being delivered this week.
Yes, the Saints division is horrid, and it’s not going to take a 12-4 record to win it as it did for Carolina last season.
But neither should anyone, inside or outside the team’s training facility, take heart from that. Winning the division with a less-than-stellar record will only come into play in the final week of the season, and it’s going to take gaining that ability to finish between now and then to be in that position.
“I don’t think anybody cares about the division right now,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said Monday.
To even be talking about the Saints getting into the playoffs by winning their division with a break-even — or even worse — record clearly shows that this is not the Saints team most thought they would see, including Payton, who acknowledged that Monday.
Admit it or not, Brees is pressing when he should be making clutch plays. Cornerback is a mess. And Jimmy Graham may be back, but on Sunday he was targeted only once with no catches. How much difference would a healthy No. 80 have made in that wretched fourth quarter?
And the other injuries are starting to mount. Payton wouldn’t confirm it Monday, but it’s likely that center Jonathan Goodwin, whose string of consecutive starts stretches back to 2009 in his first stint with the Saints, is done for the year.
We’ll find out for sure about Goodwin on Wednesday, along with any other casualties from Sunday.
Others — some who might not have thought they would have to this season — are going to be called on to step up.
“You have to let guys know that at any moment in the NFL, you can become a star,” linebacker Parys Haralson said. “Sometimes there are going to be growing pains.
“But when the time comes, you’ve just got to be prepared to do it.
At least there don’t seem to be any internal divisions such as have shown up with the Bears and even the Seahawks.
And there are other teams — the Bears, the Bengals, the Falcons — who figured to be doing better than they have thus far as well.
Finally, just because Payton was saying nice things Monday, it doesn’t mean the players aren’t any less disappointed in themselves or the record.
“Does this one hurt more?” responded Vaccaro, who wears his feelings on his tattooed arms more than anyone else on the team. “Atlanta hurt, Cleveland hurt, Dallas hurt.
“They all hurt. Am I shocked that we’re 2-4? I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.”
Frankly, with 10 games left, neither do we.