For once Sunday, Drew Brees was able to drop back in the pocket unhurried to find his favorite target open over the middle: tight end/wide receiver/amateur pilot Jimmy Graham.
Graham leaped high on his basketball-trained pogo sticks and came down with the ball right at the goal line. The pensive Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd, chewing nails all afternoon as their Saints fell behind the Atlanta Falcons by 13 points after three quarters, erupted into relieved celebration as if their club had just gotten a reprieve from the governor.
This would be the moment. This would be the play to turn the game and the season around and send the Falcons, those Dirty Birds, down the road to a bitter defeat, curse their souls.
But as Graham came down, Atlanta safety Kemal Ishmael came away with the ball, lugging his larceny to the Falcons’ 20-yard line.
At first, no one quite knew what to do, what exactly had just happened.
Surely there would be a reversal. Surely the catch would be ruled a touchdown. Surely officials would see after the replay that Graham had broken the plane of the goal line.
But the Saints would have none of that. No touchdown and, ultimately after what turned out to be a closer-than-it-looked 30-14 defeat, no cards left to play at the playoff poker table, either. Nothing but a freakish play that served as such an apt microcosm for this miserable Hindenburg of a campaign.
Thanks to the Falcons (6-9) and the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1), who beat Cleveland 17-13, the Saints are eliminated from postseason contention.
Not from the playoffs themselves. Merely from the chance to get there. One week short of the regular-season finish line, which ends with a yawn and a click of the remote next week in Tampa Bay.
We won’t call this season a disaster. Not in New Orleans, a city that knows all too well what true disaster is.
But it is a failure. A miserable failure.
Back at The Greenbrier in July, the Saints’ posh preseason training camp address, all the talk was of the Saints being top-shelf Super Bowl contenders. If there was a cloud on the horizon, it was that the main dining room might run out of poached salmon, not that the secondary might end up looking like confetti or that New Orleans would commit so many critical turnovers they could choke a polo pony.
“Where did it go wrong?” right tackle Zach Strief asked aloud, his words almost echoing off the walls of a postgame locker room devoid of few teammates willing to stand and deliver answers to tough questions.
Was it too much preseason praise for the Saints? Too much hubris? Was it the distraction of Graham’s haggling and insistence that he be paid like a wide receiver? Most of this season he deserved to be paid like a fullback.
It seems baffling that a team with so many talented players — Brees, Graham, a revitalized Mark Ingram, Junior Galette, Cam Jordan (who has almost never answered questions after games this season) — could be this bad. This much of an elevator ride. All the reliability of a British sports car.
To coach Sean Payton, it isn’t a mystery, though he didn’t exactly say what he believes the problem is.
“The things you need to do to play consistently and win in this league, we haven’t done those,” Payton said. “We have done it at times, but not consistently enough.”
The line between being a 12-4 or 11-5 team and a team mired mediocrity is a thin one, Brees said. True enough. But from their first game, a 37-34 overtime loss at Atlanta short-circuited by a Marques Colston fumble of a Brees pass in OT, it was a line the Saints were never able to cross.
They started 0-2 with painful losses to the Falcons, then at Cleveland. They managed to claw their way back to 4-4 at midseason with a 28-10 victory at Carolina that came on the heels of the season’s most impressive win, 44-23 over Green Bay.
But the Saints couldn’t build any momentum, and the season spun out of their control. New Orleans has lost five straight home games since that Green Bay victory. Hackers haven’t done this much damage since Sony Pictures’ computers got plundered before it was about to release “The Interview.”
The difference, though, is a lot of the Saints’ damage was self-inflicted. This losing season is on the hands of Payton, Brees, Graham, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and many of his players on defense.
“We have to look closely at some things, and it starts with me,” Payton said. “Are we doing it the right way? Are we doing it with the right players? Maybe the message isn’t clear, or what we are trying to do isn’t effective enough.”
It would be unwise not to expect changes in the offseason, though the main Payton-Brees brain trust likely will survive intact. But ...
“When you have six wins going into Week 16 of the season, there are people who aren’t going to be here (next year),” Strief said. “That’s the reality.”
There was an air of unreality to the Saints’ season for so long, an air that said the Saints would eventually be the high-quality team everyone expected them to be.
Instead, as Payton said, “There’s the sting of finality.”
Finally, at least, we no longer have to imagine the team the Saints are supposed to be and accept it for what it is.
What it is is not good at all.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.