METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton briefly allowed himself to smile faintly when asked about his blood pressure.
"My wife asked me that," the Saints' coach said Tuesday, a day after New Orleans' error-filled 30-27 loss to Minnesota. "I'm fine. You know, I'm disappointed."
Other coaches might have used stronger language if their teams had made the blunders that plagued Payton's squad on Monday night.
The Saints had one field goal blocked and returned 59 yards for a score, missed another field goal that would have given them a late lead, committed four turnovers, dropped several passes and committed 11 penalties for 102 yards.
The Saints have had more than their share of memorable losses since their inception in 1967. This is the same franchise that used a 75-yard pass play involving three laterals to score a touchdown as time expired in a 2003 game at Jacksonville -- only to miss the tying extra point.
When Payton was hired to replace Jim Haslett in 2006, he predicted he would change the culture of the franchise, preaching discipline while revamping the roster with smart, detail-oriented players who would know their assignments, minimize mistakes and do all the little things that help win games -- especially the close ones.
He appeared to be succeeding in his first campaign, when he was named AP Coach of the Year after leading the Saints to their first appearance in an NFC championship game.
In his second season, however, the Saints conjured follies of old. They lost one home game to Carolina because of missed field goals and an interception on which Brees' well-thrown pass bounced out of receiver Devery Henderson's hands. They lost another home game to Tampa Bay after turning the ball over on a botched exchange between Reggie Bush and Henderson on a reverse, when all the Saints really needed to do was protect a late lead.
Still, one day after the Saints finished 2007 at 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the 35th time in 41 seasons, Payton bristled at the notion that New Orleans was falling back into the same old patterns of ineptitude.
Certainly, Payton is trying. The Saints' practice headquarters is decorated with posters meant to remind players of the importance of team unity and to warn against being a "dumb player."
The motto for this season, printed on T-shirts worn by players, coaches and staff during training camp, was "Edge."
Yet in three close losses, New Orleans (2-3) has given the edge to its opponents with glaring and untimely mistakes, or by too often failing to convert short yardage situations and field goals.
In a 34-32 loss at Denver, the Saints came away with nothing after having a second-and-goal from the 1 in the first half, yet still were in position to run down the clock and set up a winning field goal at the end. But with about 2 minutes left, New Orleans could not convert on third-and-1 and ended up having to kick earlier, and from farther away, than they hoped. Martin Gramatica's 43-yard kick missed.
It makes one wonder how much a coach can really do.
"The worst thing to say is that there's only so much we can do," Payton said. "There evidently isn't enough right yet when you start looking at some of these pre-snap penalties and holding calls and missed assignments."
The Saints also have had bad luck with injuries this season. Tracy Porter is the latest starter to be knocked out of the lineup when he was placed on injured reserve after dislocating his right wrist on Monday night. First-round draft pick Sedrick Ellis went out last week with a torn medial meniscus but is expected to return later in the season.
But Payton said he doesn't want to make, or hear, any excuses.
The Saints still have talent, starting with Brees, who threw for 330 yards against Minnesota and is one pace to become only the fifth player to eclipse 4,000 yards passing in three straight seasons.
They were in position to win all three games they lost. And players like center Jonathan Goodwin -- whose low shotgun snap skipped past Brees in the third quarter of Monday night's game -- know it.
"We're a couple plays away from being 5-0," Goodwin said. "We've had some things come back to haunt us and cost us games, so we've got to get those things corrected."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press