Disappointment? Yes. The New Orleans Saints finished 12-6, the finale being a 23-15 loss at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in a divisional playoff game, one victory short of advancing to the NFC Championship Game and two shy of advancing to the Super Bowl.
Panic? Absolutely not. Because the Saints feel they're nowhere near finished as a contender, that their chances of winning the NFC South Division, reaching the conference championship game and advancing to the Super Bowl are as viable in the immediate future as they have been in the recent past.
"Honestly, the window – as long as I'm the head coach here – we're trying to slam it open, always," Coach Sean Payton said. "You could take each individual player and say, 'When is the window of opportunity?' I think I've heard that term now the last three years.
"Now, with regards to a specific player like (quarterback) Drew (Brees), I get that. And yet, that window is still all the way open. And I mean that.
"We're always in a constant change of taking in the new players, evaluating this team and then going through the process of the beginning of assembling 2014's team. But that window for us is, each year, slammed open."
Optimism is understandable following the 2013 season.
The Saints finished the regular season as the only NFL team in the top five in total offense (399.4 yards per game, fourth in the league) and total defense (305.7, also fourth). They advanced to the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons under Payton and won the first road playoff game in franchise history (the wild-card game in Philadelphia).
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-Fans-at-the-Airport/e7eb34b5-6b5c-4964-b3c5-9ea10d22bf11 "new orleans saints")And the Saints saw almost two dozen players with five years of experience or less make significant contributions, including: tight end Jimmy Graham (a league-leading 16 touchdown receptions); defensive end Cameron Jordan (a team-leading 12.5 sacks); receiver Kenny Stills (32 catches for a league-leading 20-yard per catch average); tackle Terron Armstead (starter at left tackle); outside linebacker Junior Galette (12 sacks); safety Kenny Vaccaro (one of the top rookie defenders in the league); and cornerback Keenan Lewis (a team-leading four interceptions).
Thus, there's a strong belief that the run that began in 2006 isn't nearing its conclusion.
"You look around and look at the veteran leadership we have on this team, look at the young talent, look at the systems in which we play, this organization and the expectation level that we've set for ourselves and the track record, and you would say that the future is as bright as we want it to be," said Brees, whose 13 NFL seasons make him the senior Saint on the roster.
"As hard as we're willing to work, it's all there for us," he said. "Now, every year is a new year and you've got to reestablish that identity every year, but the term 'window of opportunity,' in my opinion it's always there. For us, for this team, for this organization, for this staff and this group of players, it's always open."
And there were no dissenters in the locker room Monday, as players cleaned out their lockers and entered the offseason sooner than they'd hoped to.
"Our goals are much higher than that," receiver Lance Moore said. "It's not about winning one road playoff game. It's about getting to the Super Bowl and having a chance to win that game. I'm not going to say the season was a complete disappointment, but we are disappointed because we're not still playing and we're not having the opportunity to win and play in the Super Bowl.
"(But) as long as we're playing, we have a chance. As long as we have the core guys in this building, the heads – the head coach, the GM (Mickey Loomis) – and everybody is here and everybody is dedicated to winning, our window of opportunity isn't closing any time soon."
And even when they depart, right tackle Zach Strief said, the structure in place should ensure a competitive franchise.
"The window, to me, is more based on how long the organization keeps the people in leadership that are there," he said. "I think from the very beginning, since '06, they've done an excellent job of putting good teams together here.
"Obviously, Drew is a huge part of that and yet, there will be a point when Drew leaves. And it's my belief that as long as Sean is still here and Mickey is still here, they'll find ways to continue to be competitive after Drew. And that's really all players, the game goes on long after we move on. There's always going to be another guy.
"With the way that those two guys have run the organization, (and) with Mr. Benson – as good of an owner as there is in the NFL, in terms of letting his guys that he puts in power do what they do best. Sometimes that can be hard I think, when it's ultimately your business, to say, 'They know better,' and to let things go and to give not only those guys, but the team ,every opportunity they can to be as good as they can be. That combination of things, to me, will last longer than any players in this locker room."
So the Saints soon will begin to prepare for the 2014 season, expecting again to be competitive and to challenge for the NFC South title, and a playoff berth, and playoff victories.
Especially with something to chew on this offseason.
"For us, for me, when you get that close and when you're coming off of postseason play, you get excited for the next season pretty quickly," Payton said.