Saints are on right track, but Sean Payton stresses there is no 'Utopia'

Will Brees stay with Saints? (0:58)

Adam Schefter joins SportsCenter to explain why Drew Brees will remain with New Orleans despite being an unrestricted free agent this offseason. (0:58)

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints didn’t wait long to roll out their unofficial slogan for the 2018 season:

“There’s nothing promised.”

The Saints will almost certainly head into next season as one of the NFL’s “it” teams after a 2017 breakout that was fueled by one of the best draft classes in recent memory -- despite the devastating way their season ended in the final seconds at Minnesota on Sunday.

But you could sense during this week’s postseason wrap-up interviews that Saints coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and other locker room leaders are already looking ahead to an offseason during which they won’t let anyone on the team rest on those lofty expectations.

“I feel like we have a great window of opportunity [for a Super Bowl],” Brees said. “I've been a part of talented teams in the past throughout my career, though, that have not lived up to expectations. I've also been a part of teams that were just gutsy and gritty and surpassed expectations.

“So the bottom line is that success is dependent upon your willingness to work and the way that guys care about each other and the sense of urgency. So while I think we do have a talented team, I know that each year you have to go out and prove it.”

Payton was even more adamant when he rejected the notion that the Saints are on the right track after going from three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014 to 2016 to an 11-5 NFC South championship season in 2017. When asked if he feels better about things like the revamped scouting department, coaching staff and roster than he did in years past, Payton said, “I would say there’s not that Utopia.”

He added, “No, I don’t think anything is perfect right now. I think there a lot of things we have to get better at. I think there are still offseason mistakes. There’s a lot of things that need to be cleaned up, and we’ll work on those things here in this offseason.”

Payton did stress that he was “encouraged” by the Saints’ stellar 2017 draft class -- and the “process” that led to it -- with the college scouting department having been revamped over the past three years under assistant general manager Jeff Ireland.

Payton also stressed how pleased he was with the number of players who stepped up in the wake of injuries while a total of 10 projected starters wound up on injured reserve over the course of the season. That’s a credit to both the coaching staff and the pro and college scouting departments for building depth. So kudos also belong to GM Mickey Loomis, pro scouting director Terry Fontenot and many others.

But Payton was quick to remind that the Saints felt pretty good about the direction they were heading when they won a Super Bowl after the 2009 season and won 13 games in 2011 -- but that didn’t prevent them from hitting a lull.

“We can’t make the mistakes we’ve made in the prior seven years and then come up short and wonder why,” Payton said.

Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has been in the NFL for only two seasons, but he also recognizes that, “Winning on paper is not real in this league. So we actually have to go out there, go through another great training camp and have another great regular season to get us in that postseason.”

And veteran Saints punter Thomas Morstead stressed what a fine line it is between contending for a championship and falling well short. “We came this close to kind of being the 2 seed this year. We also came this close to losing the division at the end,” Morstead said, holding his fingers close together. “That’s how tough this league is.”

But Morstead did say that he thinks the right type of locker room is one of the most important ingredients, and he feels good in that respect. “Maybe it’s because I’m older. Maybe it’s because I have a little more perspective. But this is the most fun I’ve had playing football in my career,” Morstead said. “It’s just tough that it’s over.”

Though Payton was mostly stern when talking about the work required going forward, he did add a moment of levity to his postseason news conference when he talked about why veterans like him and Brees have “that drive” to win another championship. “You know how sometimes you’ve seen something or eaten somewhere, and you want to take a friend? And you get just as much enjoyment watching them eat that meal or watch that show?” Payton said. “I think that’s kind of one of those things that I look forward to. For so many of these players, you try to describe it and it’s hard to. So it’s one of those things where you want to be in a position to allow others to experience it.”