The nightmare of all nightmares: No Brees

If Drew Brees opted to sit out this coming season, the Saints could tumble back into mediocrity. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

The title of a project on the division blogs this week is “Dream/Nightmare scenarios’’ for each NFL team. When I first received the instructions, I called my boss.

I asked about the possibility of taking it one step further. I asked if I could write about the nightmare of all nightmares.

Let’s be clear: It’s not something that I think will happen. But nightmares, after all, are supposed to be the worst thing you can concoct. And there’s one remotely possible scenario in the NFC South that would go way beyond the run-of-the-mill nightmare scenario I cooked up in the team post on the Saints.

What if quarterback Drew Brees doesn’t get a long-term deal and somehow ends up sitting out the entire 2012 season?

If you’re a New Orleans Saints fan, this is where your stage of sleep goes from just dozing off to the start of the worst nightmare ever. This is where all the good feeling Brees has brought to New Orleans since 2006, and especially since the start of the 2009 season, disappears. This is where the Saints go from being the elite team they’ve been the past few years back to the mediocrity that was their trademark through almost their entire previous existence. This is where Chase Daniel takes the first snap of the season at home against the Washington Redskins on Sept. 9 and starts through the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at home against Carolina.

This is the land of 8-8, or maybe even 6-10.

Unlikely? Highly. I still believe Brees will sign a long-term contract, straighten out what’s been a mess of an offseason for the Saints and carry the team to another postseason berth, no matter how many coaches and other players are suspended.

But with each day that passes without Brees having that long-term deal, Saints fans must start worrying a little bit more. Brees carries the franchise tag, and the deadline for him to finalize a long-term contract is July 16. If he doesn’t have a deal by then, he has only one option -- sign the franchise tag and play for a little more than $16 million this season.

Wait, there is actually a second option. Brees could just decide to sit out the season.

Public perception is that Brees never would do that because he’s such a competitor. I’m not here to rain on Brees’ public perception. My experience around him leads me to believe he is what he’s perceived to be -- and that’s not true of all the people I cover. Brees really is a fierce competitor.

But that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to say exactly what he would do if the deadline passed with no deal. At this point, Brees himself might not even know what he would do. But my impression of him leads me to believe there’s at least the possibility he could feel like he has been wronged by the Saints and could swing back as strongly as possible.

Brees has made it clear he despises the idea of playing without any long-term security, so maybe he just doesn’t play. That would be beyond disastrous for the franchise.

This team might have lost its mastermind when head coach Sean Payton was suspended, but I think the Saints could go on nicely with Brees around. If he’s not, this team loses its heart, soul and at least as many games (eight) as it did the past two seasons combined.

Take Brees away from the Saints and you have the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wait, at least the Jaguars have Blaine Gabbert. Yeah, he was terrible as a rookie, but there were at least some reasons why he was a first-round draft pick.

Daniel, who was undrafted in 2009, has completed only six passes in his NFL career. Some people like to say Daniel is the second coming of Brees. He's not. The only things Brees and Daniel have in common are that they’re short by NFL quarterback standards and know the Saints’ playbook. Brees is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Daniel might look fine in preseason games when he’s plugged into Payton’s system. But start him over an entire regular season, especially one in which Payton isn’t around, and you’ll get a quick reminder of why teams generally avoid quarterbacks who are 6 feet or shorter.

Daniel doesn’t have Brees’ arm, experience in the offense or his magic. Yeah, I know there’s a school of thought that says you could throw any quarterback out there with the likes of Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore and he’d do just fine.

I don’t buy it. Daniel could get the Saints through a game or two (maybe a little more if Payton were around) if Brees were banged up. Brees could get the Saints through a season without Payton.

But Payton’s not going to be around. If, somehow, Brees joins him, the Saints suddenly would become a team with a defense that might or might not be average, some good skill-position players on offense and no threat at quarterback.

That sounds like a formula for instant mediocrity -- and a huge nightmare for a franchise and a fan base that has gotten very used to winning big.