METAIRIE — On Monday, the New Orleans Saints began the process of picking up the pieces of a fractured season that went terribly wrong from the very start.

They were prepared for it, of course, having been eliminated from playoff contention a week ago. Yet, even that was kind of strange in this upside-down season.

The Saints were officially knocked out of the race for an NFC playoff spot as they were about to beat the Dallas Cowboys in overtime, which still provided a rare moment of satisfaction in a humbling season.

But when they met Monday with position coaches and went through the annual task of cleaning out their lockers, the Saints were finally able to breathe a huge sigh of relief that a distraction-filled 7-9 season was over.

After going to the playoffs three consecutive years and winning a total of 41 games during that three-year span — topped, of course, by a victory in Super Bowl XLIV — the Saints expected so much more this season.

Great expectations were certainly there even though coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and interim coach Joe Vitt weren’t — all banished as a result of their suspensions for misleading investigators looking into the bounty scheme that overshadowed the season.

Because of that, Sunday’s 44-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers was a fitting end to what was arguably one of the most disappointing seasons in the 46-year history of the franchise — including the 1-15 debacle of 1980 that spawned the “Bagheads.”

It was fitting because the Saints started the season in similar fashion, dropping a 40-32 decision in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to the Washington Redskins that started an 0-4 slide right out of the gate.

In the end, the team’s first losing season since they went 7-9 in 2007 left players and coaches wanting.

“This is really disappointing,” said tackle Zach Strief, one of the team’s two offensive captains along with quarterback Drew Brees. “It’s not something we’re not accustomed to. It’s something that we don’t expect and our fans don’t deserve. So this is hard.”

Harder than 7-9 in 2007 and 8-8 a year later, which marked the last time they weren’t in the postseason.

“It’s hard, but at the same time, we got what we deserved,” Strief said. “Our record is a direct reflection of how we played. We played inconsistently, and our record shows that. In this league, you have to be consistently good, and we weren’t.”

The good news for the Saints and their fans is the return soon of Payton from his season-long suspension.

Armed with a five-year contract extension that he agreed to Friday, he’ll hit the ground running in an effort to get his team back to where it’s accustomed to being.

“It’s going to be an eye opener. … This is not our standard, what happened this year,” Brees said. “Sean will come in chomping at the bit, and we’ll be ready to roll. Offseason (workouts) can’t come fast enough; I’ll tell you that now.”