For the New Orleans Saints, Monday was the day coaches and players from 31 of 32 NFL teams never want to report to work for, and, almost to a man, dread.
If the finality of Saturday’s 23-15 divisional playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks didn’t hit them Sunday after a late-night plane ride home, it certainly did Monday morning.
With a day to reflect on their season-ending loss behind them, players had meetings and cleared out their lockers before heading to the door — some knowing they’ll be back, others left wondering.
As some were doing that, coach Sean Payton started his final news conference by lamenting the fact that there is no game this week to get ready for, no game plan to prepare and no practice Wednesday.
“It is always challenging when the postseason is continuing and you are not involved in it,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned, the offseason (workouts) cannot start quick enough. … It’s difficult to finish with a loss like that.”
Before the offseason workouts commence in mid-April, there is a lot of work to do.
Saints coaches will first go over the season and evaluate it from top to bottom. Then, it’ll be on to free agency — where All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham will be their top priority to re-sign — as well as the procurement of veteran free agents and the draft.
As usual, Payton wouldn’t talk about free agency or speculate on possible changes or decisions concerning his coaching staff.
Payton did talk about his message to the team and said he was motivated and excited about what they were able to accomplish since he returned last January from a bounty suspension.
One year removed from a miserable 7-9 season, the Saints went 11-5 and won a road playoff game for the first time in franchise history before falling to the Seahawks — one win away from playing for the NFC championship.
“The disappointment comes from our expectation level of (not) getting to that championship game and then getting to the Super Bowl,” he said. “Those are goals that are a part of the pyramid, if you will. It’s obviously more difficult the closer you get when you aren’t able to accomplish those.
“I thought there were a handful of things that we touched on that are going to be important moving forward.”
One of the things Payton and his coaching staff are going to be working on is making a deeper postseason run.
While they returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence, they were one win shy of securing the No. 2 NFC seed and earning the right to host at least one playoff game.
Quarterback Drew Brees was one of the players who talked after Saturday’s loss about the “window” of opportunity for some of the team’s veterans.
Payton said as far as he’s concerned, the window is wide open and not closing because of some young players that were added to the roster this season.
Many of them, he noted, were forced to play key roles during the season — partly because of a series of injuries that depleted the Saints’ fourth-ranked defense.
“That window is still all the way open, and I mean that,” Payton said. “We’re always in a constant change, if you will, of taking in new players, evaluating this team and then going through the process of beginning to assembling the 2014 team.
“As long as I’m the head coach here, we are trying to slam it open … always.”
After putting the 2013 season to bed, the next order of business will be in identifying which of their free agents they wish to try and retain even though they’ll be well over next year’s cap.
The Saints could have 15 unrestricted free agents.
The list is topped by Graham, who could command a contract in the neighborhood of $10 million per season.
Two starters on the offensive line — tackle Zach Strief and center Brian de la Puente — are potential free agents along with starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Robert Meachem.
Graham will be one of the league’s most-sought free agents although he likely won’t hit the open market and will be franchised if he and the team don’t agree on a new deal.
While he wouldn’t talk specifics about free agency, Payton said he understands the concern of fans about re-signing Graham.
“We have smart fans. … They’re smart enough to understand that, just like we have in years past, we’re going to make decisions as best we can for our club moving forward,” he said with a smile.
“They’re going to be able to read closely between the lines and understand we’re going to be in good shape. They’re not going to be in a panic. They’re going to be confident just the same way we are.”