The organizational-changing moment for a down-and-out franchise came in the hot, sticky summer of 2006; when the New Orleans Saints forever rewrote their history and signed a player who will be regarded as the best free agent signing of all time. The man is Drew Brees.
The undersized quarterback (by NFL standards) was coming off two setbacks in his young NFL career. San Diego had drafted his replacement in Philip Rivers, sealing Brees’ fate as the starting quarterback with the Chargers. But far worse than that, Brees severely injured his shoulder diving for a fumble in a meaningless game to cap off his career in San Diego. Now, he would have to enter an offseason trying to sell himself as not only a quarterback who could lead a team, but one that was healthy enough to do so.
Though his career reads like a story book, it has been anything but a journey to prove the doubters wrong. After a prolific career at Purdue University where his Big Ten records for completions, yards, and touchdowns still stand to this day; Brees fell to the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. While no one questioned his heart, plenty of questions surrounded his height, mobility, and arm strength.
In 2004, the year San Diego drafted his replacement, Brees had a stellar season, guiding the Chargers to a 12-4 record and securing himself a trip to Hawaii. In 2005, after being franchise tagged by an organization that never truly believed in him from the start, Brees continued to build on his excellent 2004 campaign, when disaster struck for him on the field against the Denver Broncos.
For the Chargers, a sigh of relief could be felt in the owner’s box, as the decision of which quarterback to go with had now been answered. But almost 2,000 miles away, the fortunes and history of a long-suffering franchise were about to change forever.
We all know the story of Brees’ journey to New Orleans. The impact the sights of Hurricane Katrina had on him. His wife’s hesitation to move to a broken city. The secret hope that the Miami Dolphins medical staff would clear him, and Brees would be able to start over in the Sunshine State. But the Dolphins instead went with Daunte Culpepper, a quarterback with his own injury history, and with the Saints being the only other franchise willing to give Brees a legitimate shot to start over; he went with his second option. In that, the Saints and Brees found common ground. Neither were the first option and this made them perfect for one another.
In 2006, the Saints signed Brees to a six-year contract worth $60 million dollars. He rewarded his employer by leading the team to the NFC Championship against the Bears the following year, and while no one predicted the Saints to perform to this level, it was now implanted in the minds of fans all across the Gulf Coast. We could do this. The Saints could do this. Drew Brees became a team leader, a community ambassador, and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
The 2009-2010 season led to the impossible. The New Orleans Saints were Super Bowl champions. Brees hoisted his son as confetti rained down. Players and coaches hugged. Fans cried. Babies were conceived. After all the years, the team they loved unconditionally finally told them “I love you too.” Brees stayed true to his word and played out the last year of his contract and the Saints rewarded him in 2012 by signing him to a five-year deal worth $100 million.
And how quickly five years go by.
The 2016-2017 season looms like a rain cloud, and Drew Brees, the second choice, is still without a guarantee he will be a New Orleans Saint at the end of the season. To him, this must feel awfully familiar to his last year in San Diego, and one can only wonder if Brees thinks the Saints are betting against him as well. Maybe the years have taken their toll on the razor-sharp passer. Maybe too many big hits from towering defensive lineman have taken some zip off his deep passes. Brees will be 38 when the 2016-2017 season starts to wind down. Not many quarterbacks have performed at a high level at that age, and even fewer have received big money deals as the twilight of their career is upon them.
Mickey Loomis is at the poker table. His shades on, covering his eyes to not give Brees a hint to what direction the team will go. Drew Brees sits across from him. His agent, Tom Condon, with both hands on Brees’ shoulders, supporting the player who has helped pad his net worth. Condon has no doubt told Brees exactly what he is worth to the Saints, and anyone would be a fool to argue that. But back-to-back 7-9 seasons have a way of clouding judgement, and the rumbles have started if a 37-year old quarterback is the answer to right the ship for a franchise that has tasted success and craves more.
The franchise tag isn’t an option this time around. The Saints cannot afford a $40 million cap hit. Not with the holes created by poor draft day selections and high-dollar free agent signings. $20 million a year is the magic number, but Brees wants more, and he has every right to demand more. For what are the Saints without Drew Brees? Ask the Browns how easy it is to find a franchise quarterback. Are Saints fans ready for the inevitable years of searching for that replacement to recapture the Who Dat magic? The Colts are an anomaly among a sea of teams that had to spend years (and general managers) before locking down a capable signal caller.
But on the other hand, what is Drew Brees without the Saints? Would the aging quarterback be satisfied to play out his career with the Browns or Bills for an extra few million dollars a year? Is that worth it to a man who has amassed a large net worth himself thanks to a stellar football career, endorsements, and franchise opportunities? How much money would it take for you to leave your home?
At the moment, both the Saints and Brees are betting on themselves. For the Saints, it is their hope that Brees will agree to a modest extension that will keep him in the city he resurrected for another 5 years. In that time, a new quarterback will be groomed and the sun will set on the glorious career of Drew Brees. For Brees, he is betting on the Saints paying him the extra money he desires because he has earned it and he has been a man of his word since coming to the battered city. He is New Orleans. His family, four children and counting, are New Orleans. This is his home.
The fans wait; a silent spectator in the crowd as the card game unfolds. One side will fold. One side will pump their fist at the table in celebration. But the fans wait silently, hoping they are on the winning side as well.