Now the healing can start.
Now that Drew Brees has agreed to a five-year, $100 million contract , the New Orleans Saints -- and I’m talking players, coaches, owner Tom Benson, everyone else who works for the team and all of Who Dat Nation -- finally can start moving on.
Yes, there’s going to be some sense of “the new normal’’ in a season in which coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma are suspended for the year, interim head coach Joe Vitt must hand off his temporary title for the first six games and general manager Mickey Loomis must step aside for the first eight. But simply having Brees happy and showing up for training camp provides a huge degree of normalcy, and that’s going to make a big difference.
Since his arrival in New Orleans with a chip on his shoulder in 2006, Brees has made the Saints look like a model franchise. No organization is perfect, and fans have found out plenty that they didn’t want to know about the Saints this offseason. But problems in New Orleans go back further than that. The defense wasn’t very good in Brees’ early years in New Orleans. In 2009, Payton brought in Gregg Williams to fix it. On the surface, Williams did. The Saints won a Super Bowl that season. But not everything was spectacular behind the scenes. Payton and Williams never were the best of friends, and that led to dysfunction that was masked nicely until the whole bounty drama unfolded.
That dysfunction was masked almost exclusively by one man -- Brees.
With a quarterback like Brees, you can have dysfunction in a lot of areas and still prosper. Brees has played like a machine the past few years, making everyone from left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the people who draw yard lines at Mercedes-Benz Superdome look good. With a quarterback like Brees, you can take a franchise that had never really had sustained success and make it seem like the Saints have been a dynasty forever.
Cracks in the Saints' foundation started forming in March, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell first made public allegations of a three-year bounty program. Things only got worse during the ensuing months when Goodell handed out suspensions to Payton, Williams, Loomis, Vitt and players. You needed a law degree just to follow the Saints through the spring. The summer started to look even worse as Brees' contract negotiations stalled. There were reports that Brees would not sign his franchise tag. There were hints that Brees would hold out, and the Saints appeared to be staring straight at Chase Daniel and a 5-11 or 6-10 season.
There was panic from Bourbon Street to Bogalusa as the clock ticked toward Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline for Brees to work out a long-term contract. Even die-hard Saints fans who still don’t believe their team ran a bounty program started to turn on Brees, whom some perceived as greedy. But this was just the art of negotiation.
I have to believe that Loomis and Benson knew all along that they couldn’t afford to go into this season without Brees, no matter how much he’ll impact the salary cap. I have to believe that Brees truly wouldn’t have sat out an entire season.
Both sides were simply playing the game. They played it far too long and made it much more dramatic and bitter than it had to be. But none of that matters now, and I’m sure Loomis, Brees and Saints fans will quickly forget this chapter of their history. That’s a great thing, because it’s going to be largely up to Brees to help this franchise forget -- or at least move on from -- the bounty scandal.
Brees knows how to work the media and fan base as well as he knows how to run the offense. Sometime in the next few days, he’ll talk about his new contract and on July 26 he’ll throw the first pass of training camp. It’s pretty safe to assume he’ll talk about how the Saints can still challenge for the NFC South title, maybe even win a Super Bowl championship, despite all that’s happened this offseason.
Thing is, Brees will be right. It’s not going to be easy without Payton, but the Saints still are following the coach’s system and running his offense. It’s not going to be easy with Vitt running training camp then handing the whistle off to someone else (reportedly offensive line coach Aaron Kromer) for the first six games. But this Saints team is mature and has dealt well with adversity, and you can bet it's going to enter this season with an us-against-the-world attitude. It’s not going to be easy with Loomis having to step away at the same time as Vitt. But Loomis has a staff of experienced and competent underlings who can fill his shoes for eight games.
The whole scenario just got a lot easier, because the Saints and Brees agreed to a deal.
The quarterback once took a below-market deal to sign with the Saints because there were huge questions about the health of his right shoulder. Brees clearly outplayed his first Saints contract. This time, the money is doing more than just pushing the envelope. The Saints broke the bank for Brees. They already lost guard Carl Nicks in free agency this year, and they’ll lose more players whom they would like to keep because of cap concerns. That still beats the alternative. Without Brees, the Saints would have crumbled. With Brees, they have legitimate hope of succeeding even when it seems like everything has been stacked against them.
Brees once patched over almost every flaw this franchise had. That’s why no one should doubt he can do it again.