Rabalais: Stung by season-ending loss, Saints still on right path

The Fumble was still painfully fresh in his mind, so Mark Ingram’s emotions immediately after the Saints’ 23-15 loss to the Seahawks were as raw as the elements in which Saturday’s playoff game was waged.

“Every time I carry that football, I’m carrying the team’s dreams and aspirations. I let them down at a critical moment of the game,” Ingram said of his second-quarter fumble that set up Seattle’s first touchdown and 13-0 deficit from which New Orleans could never recover.

“That’s unfortunate. I work awful hard, and it wasn’t enough today.”

It’s actually a positive sign that Ingram cares so much, though by far his mistake wasn’t the only one that led to the Saints’ demise.

There was plenty of blues to go around for New Orleans, just like for the NFL as a whole. Ultimately, 31 teams are going to end their season with some version of frustration or another. Only one goes home truly satisfied.

When balancing the books on this season’s assets and deficits, the Saints’ disappointment should be less than most of the other 30. In a league where you’re either getting better or getting worse, the Saints — with Ingram’s improved play the second half of the season as proof positive — rebounded from the lost season of BountyGate in 2012 with a promising campaign that bodes well for the franchise’s future.

“I was proud of how our guys fought and competed this year,” coach Sean Payton said. “They found a way to win 12 games. Obviously it isn’t enough for what we aspire to do.”

A 5-0 start was probably a bit of a mirage in retrospect for what the 2013 Saints were capable of doing, especially once a wave of key injuries set in.

It was a very good team — but not the class of the NFL, or the NFC for that matter. That the Saints made the playoffs but were unable to hold onto one of the top two seeds is testament to that.

But New Orleans isn’t a long way off, either — much closer to the elite status that every club strives for than the pain and waste and poor defensive play that marred the 2012 season. While the Saints couldn’t evolve into another No. 6 playoff seed capable of threading a Cinderella route to the Super Bowl, New Orleans did post a first-ever road playoff win last week at Philadelphia.

As achievements go, kicking that stigma to the curb has to rank as significant.

“I thought we handled the adversity we had throughout the year pretty well,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of seven starters or key contributors on defense who missed one or more games this season. “We started out fast; we dealt with injuries, especially in the secondary; and we kind of kept that moving all year, which was positive.

“(We) got ourselves back in the playoffs. Got a big win on the road. We just didn’t make enough plays (Saturday).”

A tale of worst to first is one of the most appealing storylines in sports. If the Saints had gotten to and won the Super Bowl this season, they could have penned their own version of that after 2012’s defense surrendered an NFL record 7,042 yards.

But those stories aren’t told every season. As Auburn found out with its BCS championship game loss to Florida State, that circuit is difficult to close.

So the Saints can use this season as a stepping stone to greatness, but there will be some important personnel issues to resolve, among them:

The need to re-sign Jimmy Graham. He wants to remain a Saint, and certainly the Saints want to keep him. But the sides are going to have to find common ground on a price, and that isn’t always easy.

Find a way to carry the fire of their prolific offense at home on the road. In the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints averaged 34.0 points per game this season. Away from home, it was often like New Orleans was playing with one flat tire as the Saints averaged just 18.3 points, including the playoffs. That should mean drafting or trading for improved offensive line play (though Terron Armstead’s work at left tackle after the first half of the Carolina game proved the Saints right in starting him) and probably whether to keep all of the veteran receivers in the fold. It’s difficult to imagine Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore will all be catching passes from Drew Brees this fall.

Settling on a kicker. After jettisoning Garrett Hartley, the Saints brought in Shayne Graham, who had two key misses (albeit in really adverse conditions) at Seattle. Do the Saints stick with Graham or draft/acquire someone else?

“We have an important offseason,” Payton said. “We’ll have meetings on Monday and begin our work toward improving.”

The Saints’ first goal should be becoming the kind of team in 2014 that can win the NFC South, a pole position New Orleans occupied most of the season before being passed by Carolina in the final two weeks, so they can use their prodigious home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Another domed Super Bowl awaits next February in Glendale, Ariz. It’s not at all unreasonable to expect that the Saints, with good health and the right offseason moves, can make it there — with no regrets.