ATLANTA — The New Orleans Saints finished a disappointing season Sunday by turning in the kind of promising performance that shows their young, renovated roster is headed in the right direction.
Now the Saints have to hope their head coach stays the course.
Playing under a cloud of speculation that Sean Payton’s time in New Orleans could be coming to an end, the Saints completed a season sweep of the archrival Atlanta Falcons with a 20-17 win on Kai Forbath’s 30-yard field goal on the game’s final play, capping a promising finish that included three wins in the final four games.
“I hope he’s not gone,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said of Payton. “He’s a brilliant coach, and we need him here. We need him here.”
Payton, whose future has been the subject of speculation throughout the season, has repeatedly answered questions about his future by saying he sees himself in New Orleans. But a flurry of reports arrived right before kickoff Sunday.
The NFL Network reported the Indianapolis Colts will see if Payton’s interested. Fox reported he would meet with general manager Mickey Loomis on Monday — typical for the end of the season. And ESPN reported that Loomis is expected to give Payton permission to explore his options.
Payton declined a question about his future in the postgame news conference by saying the Saints planned to go through their normal end-of-season operations — and then he abruptly ended the question-and-answer session. Loomis declined an interview request from The Advocate.
But the players made it clear that they want Payton to return.
“I hope so,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I don’t know the future. Nobody does. I know that any time the season ends, there’s lots of question marks, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but I certainly hope he does.”
Brees, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who remains the face of the franchise, has remained optimistic about the team’s future. He has repeatedly said a plan was put in place last offseason to make another Super Bowl run, and he has seen evidence the team is headed in the right direction.
New Orleans (7-9) provided several of those flashes against Atlanta (8-8) on Sunday.
Brees, who has quieted speculation about his decline with one of his better seasons despite playing through a bruised rotator cuff early and a torn plantar fascia late, torched Atlanta’s secondary, completing 32 of 42 passes for 323 yards and a highlight-reel, 13-yard touchdown pass to a diving Benjamin Watson.
The Saints offense stopped itself only in the red zone, failing to convert a fourth-and-1 on a completion to Willie Snead and coughing up another chance when Travaris Cadet fumbled on the goal line in the fourth quarter.
The much-maligned Saints defense allowed New Orleans to weather those miscues by making its own timely plays, particularly in the second half. A Cameron Jordan sack ended a promising Falcons drive in Saints territory. John Jenkins ripped the ball away from Devonta Freeman on the goal line and recovered the fumble for another stop. Kyle Wilson stopped another drive short with time winding down and, when the offense gave the Falcons a chance to win the game with a two-minute drill, Jamarca Sanford intercepted Matt Ryan to set up Forbath’s winning kick.
“That’s what we needed,” cornerback Delvin Breaux said. “It gives the organization and the team something to look forward to, regardless of what the record is.”
But the performance was overshadowed by the swirling rumors of Payton’s departure. Brees, who has been the subject of trade speculation himself given next year’s $30 million salary-cap figure, said he wants to finish his career in New Orleans — even if Payton takes another job.
“I want to be here,” Brees said. “I want to play for the Saints. I don’t want to play for anybody else.”
For a decade, Brees and Payton have been joined at the hip, one of the most successful coach and quarterback combinations the NFL has ever seen. Under those two, the Saints have enjoyed unprecedented heights, none higher than the franchise’s only Super Bowl win, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
“As long as Drew Brees is here, I don’t see those two separating,” tackle Zach Strief said. “I think that’s as good of a connection and a match as you can have between a coach and a player. My feelings, they know what they have. They both appreciate the relationship that’s there and the success that they’re capable of getting. I think those two will be here until he’s done.”
Brees hasn’t discussed the future with Payton. None of the players has. During the season, the Saints kept the focus on the games at hand.
Now that it’s over, the Saints hope that whatever change is coming doesn’t include the only head coach any of them has known in New Orleans.
“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the organization,” Jordan said. “Sean’s been the only head coach I’ve had in the pros. He’s always rallied us, and he’s always rallied us well.”