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Saints need Brees more than ever

This has to be Priority No. 1 for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson: Give Drew Brees whatever he wants. Now. Not tomorrow. Today.

Brees wants $23 million annually? Give him $25 million. He will earn every penny.

Now that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has leveled the Saints for their bounty program, Brees needs to be the face of the New Orleans franchise as never before. It can't be head coach Sean Payton, or assistant head coach Joe Vitt, or general manager Mickey Loomis.

Brees can do it, but only if he's happy. And he isn't happy, not right now. He doesn't want to play the 2012 season under the exclusive franchise tag, which will guarantee him in the neighborhood of $16 million for the year. Brees worked under a franchise tag in San Diego, and after his right shoulder was mangled in the season finale against Denver, the Chargers tossed Brees to the curb.

He isn't going through that again.

And unless Benson is oblivious, Brees won't have to.

Pay the man.

Benson needs Brees like never before. Brees is his most valuable asset. He is what's good about the Saints, what is pure. He is not tainted, not arrogant, not a liar. He wasn't green-lighting the bounties or trying to cover them up. Last season, he was simply setting the single-season record for passing yards, breaking Dan Marino's long-held and revered record.

Brees is well respected in the Saints' locker room and throughout the NFL. He is a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee and one of the players who lent his name to a lawsuit against the NFL during the lockout. His reputation is bulletproof. Brees is philanthropic, caring and kind. He went on "Sesame Street," for goodness' sake.

It is impossible to put a price tag on Brees' worth to Benson now, and while Payton packs up his office for his long hiatus, Benson should be begging Brees for help.

This thing is going to get worse before it gets better. If you thought it was bad on Wednesday when Goodell suspended Payton for a year and Vitt and Loomis for eight games, just wait. The player punishments are still to come.

The last thing Benson needs amid all of this mess is a disgruntled star. It will be bad enough to wade into the unchartered waters of not having the head coach for an entire season. What if Brees doesn't report for the start of the Saints' offseason conditioning program on April 16? What if he holds out of minicamps? What if he doesn't show up at training camp?

That would be catastrophic. Benson can't have that. Not now.

Brees has all the leverage, and Benson should be more than happy to let him profit from it.

Brees and the Saints are reportedly about $5 million apart. Brees is asking for $23 million a year. New Orleans is offering $18 million. Denver just gave Peyton Manning a five-year deal for $96 million -- an average of $19.2 million a year. Isn't Brees worth more than that now?

The answer is yes.

Brees is not just the quarterback of the Saints anymore. He is going to have to be their rock, their leader, their voice and essentially their head coach. Brees is going to have to be heavily involved in the game planning. He is going to have to be prepared to call the plays. He basically is going to have to run the offense and do it without the mastermind behind it.

It was never offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael running the show. It was Payton, who has a brilliant offensive mind and an even better feel for how to expose an opponent's weaknesses on game day. Payton and Brees are tight. Now Brees is going to have to do what Payton can't, and do it without him. That will be a tremendous loss to a player who has thrown for more yards and for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in the past six seasons.

On top of that, Brees is going to have to hold the locker room together during what probably will be a very bumpy start to the season. Goodell has said that 22 to 27 Saints players participated in the bounty program. Given the way he took a blowtorch to Payton, Vitt, Loomis and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he probably won't let the players off easily. Would he stagger any potential suspensions, or would he not care about putting New Orleans at a severe competitive disadvantage -- the punishment fitting the crime?

Who knows?

A lot will be on Brees' shoulders. He will have more responsibility than maybe any quarterback ever has. It will not be easy on him or his young family.

If any player in the NFL can handle it, Brees can. But his value is diminished if he's feeling underappreciated. His value is diminished if he doesn't have a contract that reflects how vital he is to the Saints organization.

Surely Benson doesn't want his organization to go down in flames. Surely he understands Brees' worth. Surely he knows that there is only one way to salvage this.

Pay the man. Drew Brees is worth it.