Vargas: Saints find high points from season

As they cleaned out their lockers and packed up their belongings on the second day of their offseason, members of the 2013 Saints catalogued the milestones they helped the franchise reach.

There was the Jan. 4 wild-card win at Philadelphia, the Saints’ first road playoff victory, claimed despite having lost two key starters and two key contributors on defense to season-ending injuries. There was the defense’s improving from 32nd in the league last season to fourth this year, their first under the command of coordinator Rob Ryan. The improvement was unprecedented since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970.

Yet none of that can compare to winning a Super Bowl, or even appearing in one. So for the Saints, their 2013 campaign will go down as disappointing, though they won’t ever consider it a disappointment, they said Monday.

“Your goal at the beginning of the season is just to position yourself to have a chance to be in the (playoff) tournament at the end,” said wideout Lance Moore, who had a 24-yard touchdown reception in the 26-24 win over Philadelphia. “We were able to do that. Obviously, we were able to win the first road playoff game. And that’s a great achievement.

“But our goals are much higher than that. It’s not about winning one road playoff game. It’s about getting to the Super Bowl and having a chance to win that game.”

Quarterback Drew Brees bluntly remarked, “Today’s the second day of the (offseason). Unfortunately, we all wish it wasn’t.”

A handful of factors on both offense and defense made that so for Brees and his teammates.

Notably, New Orleans’ fourth-ranked attack never could replicate its performances at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome away from home. When traveling, the Saints averaged almost 16 points fewer; Brees’ passer rating was almost 40 points worse; and New Orleans turned the ball over a total of 15 times, resulting in nine touchdowns and two field goals against.

The defense — which saw nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson, starting cornerback Jabari Greer, starting safety Kenny Vaccaro and oft-used linebacker Parys Haralson all land on injured reserve — took the ball away just four times during its final 11 games. It didn’t return a turnover for a touchdown all year.

Saints defenders said the lack of takeaways is the biggest regret they’re dragging with them into the offseason, especially after they forced opponents to punt at least six times in seven games. Combined with other circumstances, that significantly hampered the Saints’ odds of winning in their 23-15 defeat at top-seeded Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff on Saturday.

“There’s no rhyme or reason,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said when asked about the dearth of turnovers he and his teammates created down the stretch. “Looking back at the tape ... it’s not like we were out there dropping interceptions or the ball was out and we weren’t jumping on it.

“It’s just one of those things — you get them when you get them, and we didn’t get them.”

However, even the most veteran Saints conceded they would carry this year’s chief accomplishments forward with them, no matter where the future leads them.

Eighth-year safety Roman Harper, who many speculate might not return to the cap-strapped Saints because he’s due more than $3 million in salary and bonuses in 2014, said game film showed players were “really ready to die and fight for each other” as they orchestrated the defense’s historic turnaround.

“It was great to see guys out there playing for the guy beside them,” said Harper, who considered his return from a knee injury that sidelined him seven games one of his year’s biggest highlights. “We were all in, flying around ... making them kick.”

And according to eighth-year tackle Zach Strief, there simply is no price the Saints can place on already getting nine rookies and six second-year players two games worth of playoff experience.

That’s especially so because one of those postseason games was a win in front of a hostile crowd in cold weather, which once seemed virtually impossible for the Superdome’s main tenant. That’s especially so because some NFL players go entire careers without tasting the postseason.

“These young guys got valuable experience,” said Strief, one of three offensive linemen who started this season and are set to become free agents in March. “Getting two (playoff contests) was important, and winning on the road in the elements was important.

“And yet, yeah, it’s disappointing. We didn’t do what we tried to do.”