NEW ORLEANS — In a matter of minutes, the large black and gold S had been removed and subsequently so had another season of Super Bowl dreams for the New Orleans Saints.
The man driving the Pioneer P-REX paint remover and extractor methodically removed the black and gold letter from the right side of the end zone inside the nearly silent Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This unknown man riding what can be best described as a riding mower with water tanks on it was just doing what he was paid to do. Not to mention that the paint on the end zone turf had to be removed anyway due to next week’s national championship game.
That unknown worker though also seemed to be erasing the final hopes of the Who Dat Nation!
In the aftermath of another playoff disappointment, this one a 26-20 overtime defeat to visiting Minnesota, the feeling that the combination of the legendary quarterback Drew Brees and longtime head coach Sean Payton hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for a second time seems over.
There was an air of finality in the Superdome on Sunday evening as the magical run to the Super Bowl in Miami from a decade ago seemed to occur even further back in time.
From the start, the atmosphere was odd even for New Orleans standards. The crowd was loud but seemed muted for most of the first half. Even when Will Lutz kicked a 49-yard field goal to force overtime — the nearly 70,000 in attendance released more of a sigh of relief than a roar of cheers.
The tense nature of the Dome came from watching the home team get outplayed and in some ways out coached for most of the contest. Brees threw for only 208 yards, was sacked three times and had two turnovers including a gut punch of a lost fumble right outside the red zone late in the fourth.
Then there was the play calling with the deep pass before the two-minute warning in the first half or taking the 10-second run off instead of taking a timeout — which killed at least two chances of getting points or just how flat the team was to start the game.
The best offensive plays also came courtesy of the team’s third-string quarterback-wide receiver-special teams gunner Taysom Hill.
The fan favorite led the team in rushing, threw a 50-yard pass that set up a touchdown and caught two passes including a 20-yard touchdown.
A Super Bowl contender is usually not led to a playoff victory by a niche player.
The defense did its job by forcing an early turnover, keeping Kirk Cousins under 250 yards passing and extending their streak of not surrendering a 100-yard rusher to 43 games.
But when the defense needed to make a stop they could not as Cousins marched the Vikings down the field in overtime and found tight end Kyle Rudolph open in the end zone for the game-winning four-yard pass.
Did Rudolph push off? He sure did.
Did the Saints lose the game because of that one play? Nope.
The Saints struggled against the Vikings pass rush (credit to Payton’s old pal from his Dallas Cowboys days — Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer), Brees couldn’t get in a rhythm at all, and the offense was absolutely lethargic.
How were the Saints not more amped up for the game? Why was the energy down? And how did they let one of the most maligned quarterbacks in the NFL beat them in their own house? By the way, three of the team’s four losses this season occurred in the Superdome.
Those are the tough questions the front office, coaches and players will be asking themselves this long offseason. The Saints now turn their attention to the NFL Draft, the team has the No. 24 overall pick, and will see if they can somehow keep the window on a Super Bowl run open ever so slightly.
But that seemed like a monumental task while strolling out the Superdome on Sunday evening.
Even after Marshawn Lynch’s “Beastmode” run during the 2010 playoffs or the Vernon Davis touchdown catch at old Candlestick Park in 2011, there was still hope that Brees and Payton would get another chance at winning a title together. The QB and coach still had plenty left in the tank.
It may have taken a few years but the team reloaded with shrewd drafting and free agent pickups. The result was three straight years of 13 wins and three straight NFC South titles.
But all three seasons ended with a stunning heartache. The “Minneapolis Miracle” in 2017, last season’s “NOLA No Call” in the NFC Championship Game and then Sunday’s overtime loss.
The most recent loss means the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have six straight playoff eliminations by one score. Not the history any team wants to be associated with.
Does this franchise have anything left? Does the soon-to-be 41-year-old quarterback and likely first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer have enough in him to make another run? And does The Who Dat Nation have anything left to give to this team?
Those questions remain to be answered but in the aftermath of another loss on Sunday it sure did feel like the man driving that P-REX was removing a lot more than black and gold paint on artificial turf.