The NFL is a league of shortening careers and non-guaranteed contracts, but the brightest flames seemingly burn forever. They’re the elite quarterbacks to whom age is simply a process rather than a definite end. A 39-year-old Peyton Manning just dueled a 38-year-old Tom Brady for the 17th time in the championship round the same weekend that 36-year-old Carson Palmer threw 40 times to try to win the NFC. Manning retired with almost no arm to lift the Super Bowl trophy after his Broncos won the battle against Carolina.
But in a summer in which Brady inked an extension to take him into his early 40s and Palmer signed on for $21 million guaranteed two seasons down the road, one of the league’s brightest flames continues to have such a dark and uncertain future.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is coming off another year in which he led the league in passing, another season where he made good use of the abilities that were said to be in decline. By now, Brees is to the Saints what Dan Rather was to the CBS Evening News or what Derek Jeter was to the New York Yankees. It’s hard to imagine him being anywhere else than where he’s thrived for so long.
But for once, Brees and the Saints are letting the clock wind down. As of July, the two sides hadn’t discussed in three months the idea of an extension to the five-year, $100 million deal that is set to expire at the end of this season. Short of a resolution in the next two weeks, the 37-year-old Brees will likely play his 11th season in New Orleans in limbo.
This isn’t how these victory laps are supposed to run. The only elite quarterback to change teams in his 30s during the past five years was Manning, who did so after missing a year with multiple neck surgeries and as Colts landed the top pick to take Andrew Luck.
Brady and Palmer had multiple years left on their current deals when they signed extensions this offseason. But they each finished a game away from the Super Bowl, a place that feels so foreign to the Saints right now.
After a five-year run that averaged 11 wins a year and featured a Super Bowl, New Orleans has finished 7-9 the past two seasons. It was no fault of Brees, who topped 9,800 yards and 65 touchdowns in that span. Instead, his play illuminated just how far off the rest of the roster is to finish with losing records in a pass-oriented league.
The Saints team that finished first throwing the ball last year was also the second-worst at defending it, and it was also the 31st at stopping the run. The only defense that was in the same realm of terrible was the Giants, which explains why the two teams played to a 52-49 final in the Superdome last fall.
The Giants’ own star quarterback, Eli Manning, turned 35 in January, so theGiants attempted to stuff the holes in their roster with money. They threw a combined $105 million guaranteed at three of the market’s top free-agent defensive players in an effort to win now.
The Saints couldn’t afford to try to do the same for Brees because of, well, Brees. His record $30 million cap hit that kicked in this offseason eliminated the chance of landing A-list free agents. The Saints of five years ago had hoped they wouldn’t need to spend big entering Brees’ 11th year with the franchise.
The Saints’ framework has rotted away. Brees is one of only three starters who remain from the 2009 Super Bowl team, joining right tackle Zach Strief and safety Roman Harper. The defense has finished 31st in two straight seasons and boasts only a few pieces who flash the potential to be building blocks; one of them, first-round defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, just fractured his fibula.
Brees is aging and losing arm strength at a position that demands top dollars. He has enough left to lift his team out of the top 10 of the draft, but he can no longer elevate a roster lacking talent to anything near contender status in a stacked NFC.
Everyone involved is hoping this season will provide some clarity. It’ll be Brees’ 16th, and another test of whether his eyes, ball tricks and decision-making can stave off what’s happening to his arm.
But by and large, his future in New Orleans will depend more on the performance of his defense than whether he leads the league in passing again. The overall success of the team will determine whether signing on to try to win with an aging, declining quarterback is smarter than rebuilding around a cheaper, younger heir.
It’s all a bunch of “ifs” right now. If new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen can use savvy new inside linebacker James Laurinaitis to streamline the communication that was sorely lacking last season. … If rising players such as inside linebacker Stephone Anthony or safety Kenny Vaccaro can join Cameron Jordan as difference-makers. … If the unit can stay healthy enough to play at a decent clip better than last year’s sieve, the Saints could return to the playoffs.
If New Orleans were to re-sign Brees for slightly less than the $21 million cap hit the Cardinals will average during the three years with a slightly younger Palmer, they could use the extra money on a piece to add to the puzzle. The question will be how many pieces they’ll still need, and if this is the way they want to continue to build.
For now, the flame is flickering.