It was another opening NFL Sunday in New Orleans, another 400-yard, 4-touchdown performance and another shootout loss for the Saints. Drew Brees was at the handle for the 11th straight year, but it’s hard to say he was comfortable. He looked more like a man still betting on himself.
That’s the world the nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback is left to play in after signing a four-year contract extension that was supposed to give him peace of mind, but didn’t really. The deal, signed the Wednesday before the season opener, does secure his place in the city he helped revive for at least another year. But it’s mostly just delaying the answers.
Brees is the one who gave in, backed up against a contract year no franchise quarterback likes to have to play in today’s market (unless you count Kirk Cousins and the $20 million franchise tag he’ll gladly play on in Washington after coming off a rookie contract). Brees’ new five-year deal is mostly just a team-friendly move to spread out the guaranteed dollars that previously had been so bunched up in 2016 that it gave him a $30 million cap hit, the largest in league history. The new pact will secure him $25 million for next season, which is great, but considering the three years on the deal after that are all voidable, it still feels like the 37-year-old is playing on borrowed time.
This is somewhat rare in the league today for quarterbacks around his age who still appear to have it the way he does. Carson Palmer (36) and Tom Brady (39) both signed extensions this summer that will keep them in town and starting at least through 2018.
Great quarterbacks can also fade quickly as they near 40 years old, as Peyton Manning showed last season in Denver and Brett Favre displayed in 2010 with the Vikings. That’s a layer of the Saints’ apprehension, but the main one still seems to be about the foundation they’re trying to build.
Sunday’s opener brought out the same dilemma the Saints have played in the past two seasons. Both years, Brees led the league in passing yards as the Saints finished 7-9 thanks to a bottom-five defense. On Sunday, he threw for league bests of 423 yards, 4 touchdowns and a 131.3 quarterback rating, only for the Saints to lose 35-34 after the Oakland Raiders opted to go for 2 in the final minute. New Orleans lost with talent and health problems on defense that it just can’t address at this point in the year.
The question isn’t so much whether Brees still has it, as he’s using the nuances of ball fakes, eye movement and pocket presence to offset what he’s losing in arm strength. The real question is whether the Saints still have what Brees needs to be able to contend in his twilight years.
The extension gives them another year to figure it out, but it’s not going to help much if their potential defensive building blocks aren’t on the field giving any clues. This year’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, will miss at least the first seven games on injured reserve with a broken fibula. Last year’s second-rounder, inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, didn’t start and played just 18 percent of the snaps this week despite starting all 16 contests and leading the team in tackles as a rookie last season. Even this year’s second-rounder, safety Vonn Bell, is stuck behind two of New Orleans’ few solidified starters on that side of the ball.
That’s not to say the Saints won’t still see value in the greatest quarterback in franchise history if he leads the league in passing yards for the fifth time in six seasons, or even just puts forth another top-flight season. But whether their number and his land in the same ballpark remains to be seen. By next summer, Brees could face the same questions he did this offseason without the leverage to push them onto his organization. Thanks to the years on the contract, the decision whether to keep it going or to move on now rests solely in their hands.
And so Brees will keep slinging it, betting on himself to continue to produce against the affects of age. He’s also betting on his defense to start showing a pulse, and in that sense, he’s in the same strange place he was a few weeks ago.