Pride, jobs on the line for Saints in Week 17

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and his players talked about wanting to “finish the season the right way” next week at Tampa Bay.

And perhaps pride will inspire them a bit as they get one last chance to release the frustrations of this crushing 6-9 season.

But the more important motivator will be what offensive tackle Zach Strief talked about Sunday: auditioning for the future.

This is the kind of season that demands change in the offseason. Payton talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of finding out “who your guys are.” And he again stressed after Sunday’s 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that when the Saints review this season, they’ll take a close look at what they’re doing -- and who they’re asking to do it.

“When you’re 6-9, everybody’s job is on the line. That’s the reality of the business,” Strief said. “People are not going to be here, especially here, where there’s an expectation of winning. There’s going to be changes made, and you know that leaving the season, so there’s a lot to play for.”

Who, exactly, is on the hot seat is tougher to predict than ever heading into this offseason.

On one hand, the Saints veered so far off the track this year that all options should be on the table.

On the other hand, this team was built to win now with quarterback Drew Brees turning 36 next month. The Saints have invested heavily in several core players still in their primes (a lot of which I agreed with when I broke down their 2014 offseason moves last week). And there were a lot of folks suggesting New Orleans had the most talented roster in franchise history heading into this season.

So not only do the Saints need to decide whether a major overhaul is realistic with their salary-cap constraints, but they first need to decide whether it’s even necessary.

The first big decision will be the fate of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints’ defense was awful for much of this season. But Payton strongly defended Ryan’s passion and work ethic a few weeks ago. And the defense showed signs of life over these past two weeks.

What the Saints do with Ryan might be the best indicator of whether they believe more in the potential this defense showed in 2013 or the implosion we saw in 2014.

It’s even harder to believe that Payton will pin the blame for this year’s failings on the longtime assistant coaches whom he’s trusted through thick and thin (Joe Vitt, Pete Carmichael, Greg McMahon, et al). The Saints’ kick-return game was stagnant this year, but that was the only area that provided a spark during Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, thanks to a 99-yard return on the opening kickoff.

As for players, I’ve already written about some of the escalating salaries that jump off the page (Marques Colston $7 million in salary and bonuses in 2015, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne $4.5 million each, Jahri Evans $7.5 million, Ben Grubbs $6.6 million).

The offensive line has to be first on the priority list because we’ve seen regression there from older, expensive players like guards Evans and Grubbs -- but we haven’t seen a backup plan develop yet.

The Saints also have several decisions to make at a cornerback position that was a revolving door all year outside of top guy Keenan Lewis. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker -- not to mention deciding how much to invest on a possible successor for Brees in the draft.

The 2015 offseason might be the toughest one we’ve seen yet in the Payton-Brees era.

At least they’re getting a head start.