SEATTLE — Six weeks ago, the Saints left CenturyLink Field dazed, unsure just what they had inside the locker room.
They were young, uneducated in the school of professional football.
Saturday afternoon, in a 23-15 loss to the Seahawks, they learned one more lesson this season – when the window of opportunity is open, you have to take full advantage.
Against Seattle, they missed catches, third down conversions, field goals and, just maybe, an opportunity to knock off the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
“You don’t know when the window closes,” Saints safety and unrestricted free agent Malcolm Jenkins said. “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.”
The window, open so wide just a few years ago, appears to be sliding shut, even if ever so slightly.
They missed one more time on an opportunity to win a championship with a good team because they can’t figure out a way to keep the postseason in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This is the third time in four years that group has lost a postseason game on the left coast. It’s the third time in four years that group has been outplayed.
The core that turned the Saints around just eight years ago is getting older. Receivers Marques Colston (30 years old) and Lance Moore (30), offensive linemen Jahri Evans (30) and Zach Strief (30), safeties Roman Harper (31) and Jenkins (26) and quarterback Drew Brees (34) have a lot of football miles on their frames.
“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,” said Brees, now finished with his 13th NFL season. “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.”
The Saints had the right game plan Saturday. They contained the Seahawks, allowing just 277 total yards and 5 of 14 third-down conversions.
Marshawn Lynch might have had 140 yards rushing, but other than his 31-yard touchdown dash, he was mostly contained.
Thanks to the defense, the game was there to be taken by New Orleans.
Yet, Shayne Graham missed two field goals. The offense went 3 of 12 on third down. When the Saints were close to tying the game, they had a penalty that stalled the drive. When the game was still close, Mark Ingram fumbled the ball away and Seattle turned it into the game-changing points.
You just get the feeling that in the Superdome, Saturday doesn’t happen like it did.
Still, something had to go right for New Orleans to get to 12-6 and earn a spot in the divisional round of the playoffs.
They overcame a starting roster full of players to injured reserve. They turned around a defense that a season ago allowed more yards than any other in NFL history. They went 2-3 in their final five games and still found a way to figure things out and win the franchise’s first road playoff game.
“Young people played a lot of good football for us,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “That’s exciting once you think about the future because they got a ton of reps when we really needed them. They’re more experienced and that’s going to help us going into next year.”
Saturday night in the locker room was a much different feeling than on Dec. 2.
“I really do feel like six weeks ago, we’re sitting here saying I don’t know who exactly we are; I don’t know that we know. I don’t know that anyone knows,” said Strief, the starting right tackle and another of the unrestricted free agents. “And yet, you go through these last couple of weeks and say this team has heart, this team had a lot of resolve and you’re proud of the way you finish.”
Proud or not, though, the Saints’ season now is over and another opportunity with one of the league’s best quarterbacks over the past eight seasons has passed.
Besides Jenkins and Strief, their unrestricted free agents include Jimmy Graham and Brian de la Puente, Jonathan Vilma and Parys Haralson, Robert Meachem and Charles Brown.
The team that comes to training camp in late July won’t be the one that walked off the field in Seattle.
You have only so many chances in the NFL and the Saints missed one of them this season and Saturday, just like in 2011 when they couldn’t get over the hump in San Francisco.
The good news is that there appears to be a youth movement that could keep the window open longer. Between Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Curtis Lofton, Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis, the Saints could keep the train moving forward.
“We’ve had that opportunity to have success year in and year out,” Jenkins said. “You’ve just got to hope it continues.”
If it doesn’t continue, that sound you hear is the window slamming shut, a sound that suddenly feels closer than it did just six months ago.