MINNEAPOLIS — Sean Payton pauses and looks up at a television screen hanging in the interview room as he begins to make his opening remarks.
There is a bit of a delay. You can hear the cheers still reverberating from the stands after Minnesota’s last-second touchdown to Stefon Diggs that knocked the Saints out of the playoffs in a shocking 29-24 victory here at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, but the picture took a second to come through.
The screen shows Diggs standing on the sideline, basking in the adulation from fans too delirious and too filled with adrenaline to be concerned about the 9-degree weather waiting for them in the parking lot.
“Obviously, a disappointing game to lose in the fashion we did,” Payton says. “I was proud of our players, though. Fought back in the second half, kind of climbed back in it. Made enough plays to put ourselves in that position.”
The Saints turned a disheartening loss into one that would have been a respectable defeat, showing the character and grit they displayed throughout the season — but they fought too hard, claimed the lead and then lost in the most stunning way imaginable.
It turned headlines from “Purple Haze" to “Purple Yays" to “Purple Daze.”
It is hard for players to process their thoughts. They speak about this team's bright future after the loss, but it comes through a layer of pain and from behind hollow eyes. The emotions are conflicted: hope and despair.
The future will be better, which they know is true. But positivity is hard to find since Diggs buried it 61 yards deep, somehow getting behind rookie safety Marcus Williams on the final play.
After Payton finishes speaking, the doors to the locker room open. Drew Brees stands at his locker stall, head down, back to the crowd, responding to text messages. Chase Daniel flanks him doing the same. After a few minutes, Brees walks to the center of the room, looks around, eyes still red, and exits up a hallway into the showers.
General manager Mickey Loomis enters and shakes hands with every player in the locker room, stopping to hug wide receiver Willie Snead. It was a hard year for the receiver; he started out suspended for a DUI, battled a hamstring injury and never found a role on the team. He almost became a hero Sunday, just missing a deep pass to running back Alvin Kamara on a trick play and then making a fourth-down reception that set up what would have been the game-winning field goal if not for Diggs.
Now Snead enters the offseason shrouded in uncertainty. He’s scheduled to be a restricted free agent, but one has to wonder what his role will be if the team decides to retain him. Just seconds before Snead and Loomis share their embrace, safety Kenny Vaccaro, who finished the season on injured reserve and will be a free agent, walks through the locker room and exits out a door to a bus.
Almost on cue, Ted Ginn Jr. begins speaking about an uncertain future.
“You always know that the team isn’t going to be the same next year,” Ginn says. “That’s kind of like the biggest deal, so you try to get it done with the guys you have in the locker room right now. We had a handful of guys here that knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to get it done whether they were playing or not. We just got to get back to that.”
Cam Jordan, typically the life of the locker room win or lose, dresses slowly at his locker before addressing reporters. For many others, the wound is too raw to speak. Snead, Kamara and offensive tackle Terron Armstead all quietly decline interview requests, each saying they don't have anything to say.
Williams might be in the most pain. He, too, was almost a hero. He made the interception that brought the Saints back to life. He then played a major role in the defeat. He was the man in coverage on Diggs’ touchdown. He gave up the sideline. He dove and took out cornerback Ken Crawley. He surrendered the touchdown.
His eyes carry tears. Williams says he shouldn't play the game if he ever makes another mistake like the one he made Sunday night. He also says he doesn't feel like his teammates were down on him for the mistake. They know what role he played in the success. They know they wouldn’t have been here without him.
“I don't feel like anybody in here is down on me or anything like that,” Williams says. “I feel like we're all together."
Brees returns from the shower and slowly packs his locker, placing items inside of a black suitcase and a camouflage backpack. He picks up a stat sheet off his chair, glances at the cover and tosses it on a shelf. A friend walks over, pats him on the back, and Brees politely smiles and conducts a short conversation.
When he finishes the talk, he picks up the stat sheet, looks over the play-by-play with Daniel peeking at it over his shoulder. He places it back on the shelf, puts on a gray sports coat and exits up a hallway to address the media.
It’s been about 25 minutes since Payton finished talking, and the roaring crowd is still serving as the backdrop as Brees begins to speak. One of the first things he mentions is the Saints scored on every drive but one in the second half, a big accomplishment against the league’s best defense, and something he had likely confirmed on the stat book.
He talks about other heartbreaking loses, including one from 2011 against San Francisco, but notes that you have to get over it. His outlook is positive. The message he harps on is one of hope for the future. At 39, he notes that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he mentions multiple times the window of opportunity this team has.
It’s telling of his mindset. Brees’ contract is set to expire in March. He could be one of those guys Ginn mentioned being on the way out. Brees has been reluctant to discuss his future all season. He’s asked if he plans on being here moving forward.
“I do,” he says.
He exits down a couple steps and walks out of a door when he finishes talking. Vikings fans are still in the hallways celebrating. There will be plenty of reminders of the heartbreak over the next few days. These things don’t go away easily.
The only cure is new success. The Saints found the recipe this season. Now they need to find it again.