ATLANTA — On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints were back where their fall began in September 2014.
No one knew to be fearful or concerned back then. It was the first game of the season. Hope was available by the drum. Everything was going to be fine. No one knew the missed tackles, blown assignments and, well, losing were going to become the new hallmarks of this once-proud team.
Everyone knows to be scared now. A simple whisper is enough to send someone running up the stairs, gripping the rails in fear of impending doom. And Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons probably did little to change those feelings throughout the fan base.
No one knows what’s going to happen next. Before the game, reports swirled about coach Sean Payton potentially leaving the organization, pending the outcome of a meeting with general manager Mickey Loomis on Monday morning after conducting exit interviews with the players.
After the game, Payton once again had the opportunity to put an end to such speculation. He instead declined to answer the inquiry and stepped down from the podium before giving reporters the opportunity to ask additional questions.
“We got the players in (Monday). We got to evaluate the roster,” he said. “We got a lot of things we got to do. If I feel the need to get you an itinerary, I will. That’s the answer there. That’s the answer. That’s the answer. You with me? I can’t be more clear.”
It could be more clear. No one knows what’s going to happen, and that could have been fixed with a strong denial, which hasn’t been delivered all season.
Instead, the mystery will continue to swirl. And it’s not just fans and media who remain in the dark. Not one of Payton’s players asked about the situation Sunday knows which way he’s leaning. The good news is that this situation should resolve itself sooner than later.
Even still, despite all of that, the optimism surrounding the future of the roster among players in the locker room following the game was striking.
Following last year’s win at Tampa Bay in the season finale, the locker room was stiff and still, populated by a bunch of individuals who were more relieved to be going home than eager to see how things would evolve.
That wasn’t the case Sunday. Sure, the players are probably eager to take a break before hitting the reset button. But when the button is pushed, it will be done so with excitement, not out of obligation or with resentment.
That’s meaningful. It speaks volumes. It’s evidence the organization accomplished its goal of restocking the roster with the right kind of players after the locker room was undermined by sniping and poor attitudes the year before. That made this march to 7-9 feel better than last year’s march to 7-9.
“The atmosphere was a whole lot better,” offensive lineman Zach Strief said. “I think we all enjoyed the season more than we did last year. Obviously, look, when you’re losing games, that’s not fun. And yet, on Thursday afternoon you’re still not sulking about a loss. You’re sitting in the locker room, and those situations have been enjoyable.
“I think there’s more excitement. I think we got our locker room back,. I think we have the right people in there — we have to play better — but I think we got the right people. As a player, that’s all you can ask for, that the organization puts the right guys in the room.”
Getting to that point wasn’t cheap. The Saints saddled their salary cap with dead money after letting go of talented players — such as defensive end Junior Galette, who after Sunday’s game released a string of videos on Snapchat taking shots at his former team.
In one of them, he says, “One more, one more. This is what’s going to hurt them. They owe me $5 million. Cut the check, Mickey. I’m going to get it in March.”
Avoiding those situations and investing the money on players who were actually on the team likely would have made a world of difference. There would have been depth and perhaps better talent at key positions. Injuries to players like Keenan Lewis, Rafael Bush, Damian Swann and Dannell Ellerbe might not have doomed the defense, since there would have been a better next man to step up.
But hindsight won’t erase those errors, and the Saints deserve credit for righting the ship. If they hadn’t, and the team still went 7-9, the feeling in the locker room likely would have been much different Sunday afternoon.
And even though it’s not a tangible commodity, carrying that feeling into the offseason matters. It will drive players to improve and become better as a team. Both Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro talked up all the young players on defense after the game, saying they believe those guys are only going to get better.
Vaccaro, despite playing on a unit that posted several records in futility, went so far as to state that he believes this defense could be at the top of the league next year.
“They’ll get a full offseason to just enhance their skills,” he said. “It’s exciting. The depth that we got, we get Ellerbe back — if he can stay on the field — I think it will be a drastic change. I think it will be like from 2012 to 2013. They drafted me, they brought Keenan Lewis in and, next thing you know, we’re the No. 2 pass defense (after) we were the worst ever the year before.
“Why can’t that happen? It happened then; why can’t it happen now? People say, ‘They have so many holes,’ but it took two, three players from that year, and then we were No. 2 in pass defense.”
Maybe the Saints are a player or two and some individual improvement away from being able to contend for a playoff spot next year. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. But talent, at least right now, is a secondary issue.
There’s one issue that eclipses all else.
If Payton leaves, everything goes into flux, and a new vision will be implemented. Some of the guys on the team might not fit the next coach’s scheme.
It’s impossible to evaluate the future right now.
The only thing that’s clear is that nothing is clear at all.