Brees, who turns 35 on Wednesday, admitted that it's getting harder and harder to deal with these season-ending losses as he realizes his “window of opportunity” is getting smaller with each passing year.
“It's always tough to sit up here now when you know the season is over – the 2013 season is over – because No. 1, you know how close you got. It stings even more,” Brees said. “Like last year, you walk away 7-9 and you didn't have a chance at the playoffs. You weren't that close. It hurts. The closer you get, the more it hurts, the more it stings. You also realize in this league, in this day and age, there are some of those guys that you're not going to be playing with anymore. Every team changes. There's a lot of turnover from year to year. So there's guys perhaps that you played with for a few years that you formed a special bond with that all of a sudden they're gone. It's a different team. You've got to re-establish that identity each and every year.
“And also, this was my 13th year. You just don't know how many more opportunities you have to play this game, to compete at this level and have a shot at a championship. You certainly can never take it for granted. We're so blessed to have these opportunities, but we know they're getting fewer and fewer. That's what makes it so tough standing up here right now having to talk about that.”
It certainly wasn't doom and gloom in the Saints' locker room on Saturday. In fact, most of the disappointment and frustration seemed to stem from the fact that players genuinely felt like they were peaking at the right time at the end of this season.
For better and for worse, Saints coach Sean Payton and players had been open about the fact that this is a younger team than people realize. That wasn't great a month ago – when the Saints hit a mini-slump in December. But they grew up fast with some hard-fought wins and losses down the stretch.
“I think you'll probably hear a lot of people in here today say they're proud of the team. I think there was a ton of growth in the last month with this team,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “There's a lot of young guys that haven't been there, haven't been through the grind of a season. And I think you see a lot of light bulbs go off in this room, this locker room, as a season goes on. And look, I'd go in anywhere with this team. I really would.
“I feel like you can trust this team at this point, and that's something that maybe five, six weeks ago, you don't say, you don't feel the same way. There were still a lot of questions of, ‘Who are we? What are we made of?' That's one of the things that makes this loss tough, because I think this team did develop well at the end of the year.”
Overall, the Saints should be trending in a positive direction next season. The offense is still a terrific asset, led by Brees, who had his fourth career 5,000-yard passing season. All the better if they can build on the run game that finally emerged in the playoffs with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
The defense is even more promising, led by new coordinator Rob Ryan and promising young breakout players like Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Keenan Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro, Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins.
The Saints will have to make some difficult financial decisions, though. They're already $12.5 million over the projected salary cap of $126.6 million in 2014, according to ESPN's John Clayton. And that doesn't even include a new contract for unrestricted free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham.
Make no mistake -- Graham will be re-signed for sure, whether or not the franchise tag is required. But the Saints will have to let some veteran pieces go, including the likely release of guys like Will Smith, Roman Harper and a handful of others. It will also be tough for them to keep other unrestricted free agents like Strief, center Brian De La Puente and safety Malcolm Jenkins. And they can't be free spenders in free agency to add new assets.
The Saints finished this season ranked No. 6 in the ESPN.com Power Rankings -- exactly where they belong, and a pretty good guess as to where they'll be to start next season.
That makes them legitimate Super Bowl contenders. But that doesn't make it any easier to toss away this 2013 season that was so promising when they started out 5-0. As Jenkins said, you learn pretty quick in this league that every opportunity should be embraced.
“The biggest disappointment that some of the young guys won't understand until they play for years is that when you have a team like this, the opportunity is now to win,” Jenkins said. “Who knows what next team's year is going to look like? It's going to be a whole different team. There is no carryover. For all the talent we have on this team, I think we all felt this was the year to do it. We'll see what happens next year. I'm sure there will be a different roster. There will be different faces, different names. ...
“You don't know when the window closes. No one can predict it, and no one can guess, but there is a window. You take every year like it is your last because you never know when these opportunities will come.”