Loomis: Good year, but expectations higher

MOBILE, Ala. -- New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis visited with the media Tuesday to review the 2013 season and look ahead to 2014. The hottest topic, obviously, was the looming contract talks with free agent tight Jimmy Graham and the possible battle over his franchise-tag designation.

But Loomis also broke down a variety of interesting topics during the lengthy Q&A session. He also spoke about the departure of quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi to the Detroit Lions and the Saints’ growing coaching tree. I’ll break down more of the highlights in a variety of specific posts over the next couple days.

But first, some of Loomis’ overall thoughts on the season that just ended – an 11-5 campaign that fell short of the ultimate goal when the Saints lost in the divisional round of the playoffs at Seattle.

“I think this: We had a good year, a lot of real good things to feel good about. And yet it wasn’t a great year because we’re not in the Super Bowl,” Loomis said. “And that’s just where we’re at as a program. We expect and want to play in that game, and we want to win it. And we had a chance. I thought our coaches and players did a great job. And yet when you lose that last one, you’re always wanting more.

“And I think Sean [Payton] said this after the Super Bowl, ‘Once you’ve eaten steak, you don’t want hamburger any longer.’ So that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re still in that mode. ...

“We’re right there. We were in the playoffs and had opportunities to win the game in Seattle and we didn’t. They were the better team in that game. [But] we’re confident in our building that we can play and beat any team on a given day. We’ve felt that way for quite some time.”

Loomis admitted that the salary cap will be a hurdle once again for the Saints this year. They’re currently about $12.5 million over the projected cap of $126.6 million. And they’ll have to make room for Graham’s new deal, among others.

Starting right tackle Zach Strief, starting center Brian De La Puente and starting safety Malcolm Jenkins will likely rank as the other highest-priced free agents among this year’s class.

But the Saints dealt with similar constraints in each of the past two years, as well. As Loomis said, “We’ll navigate our way through it. It’s not our first rodeo in terms of having this circumstance. And yet it does limit us.”

“It’s all part of the puzzle,” Loomis added. “If we were flush with cap room, obviously we’d be able to do more. It’s just a puzzle that we have to piece together and make sure all the pieces fit. And yet, the overriding variable is, ‘Hey, are we improving our team?' We’re not trying to just stay level. We’re trying to improve.”

In recent years, the Saints have let some of their veterans go in free agency (like All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod). They’ve worked out pay cuts with other veterans. And they’ve moved a lot of money around through restructured contracts.

Yet through it all, the Saints have also aggressively added pieces in the open market like cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebackers Victor Butler and Parys Haralson last year; and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, guard Ben Grubbs and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley in 2012.

“Well, you know, we’re always trying to improve our team,” Loomis said. “And I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can’t afford to make many mistakes. That your margin for error is decreased. So whether we’re able to do that this year remains to be seen.”