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New Orleans Saints Preview 2012 

Alejandro de los Rios breaks down the five big questions facing the Black and Gold

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When you combine Drew Brees' salary ($3 million), most recent signing bonus (a whopping $37 million) and endorsements ($5 million), his payday lands him third on Sports Illustrated's list of the most highly paid athletes in the world — earning a half-million dollars more than LeBron James and nearly $7 million more than Peyton Manning.

  But with the New Orleans Saints fighting the perception that they're cheats, and their head coach, general manager and star linebacker in exile, Brees' price tag could have been so much more. Now he carries the weight of a franchise and a region on his shoulders as he tries to become the first quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl in the team's hometown stadium.

  The question has to be asked: How much is Drew Brees really worth?

  His contract and endorsement value can't be the only measure. Not for New Orleans' only Super Bowl MVP quarterback. Not after the Who Dat Nation pulled out its collective hair during the five-plus months the Saints dawdled on Brees' contract. And certainly not when a pay-for-play controversy has cost the Saints their head coach, assistant head coach and general manager for all or part of the season. How do you measure the worth of a man who has remained a true and constant positive force on a team surrounded by so much turmoil?

  Every Saints fan knows the Brees-New Orleans redemption story by heart. But let's not forget that there was a time when Brees was just a very good quarterback with a history of losing in the playoffs. Even when his team was struggling to an 8-8 record, however, Brees and his wife Brittany were investing in a schoolyard garden at Samuel J. Green Charter School through their Brees Dream Foundation. It's only one story of the quarterback's largesse.

click to enlarge Darren Sproles

  Looking back through his college's student newspaper, Purdue University's The Exponent, you see the makings of the man New Orleanians know and love today. At a July 2000 Big Ten press conference, the paper reported he was "overwhelmingly the most popular football player present" and he was "surrounded by a swarm of journalists." That kind of adulation could get to a college senior's head, yet just four months after having a street named after him and three days before he was selected in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Brees was playing in a charity basketball game benefiting a fellow Purdue athlete's youth center.

  It's a wonder the Saints took so long to sign Brees to a long-term deal. There was nothing the Saints or anyone else could do about "Bountygate" and the judgment handed down by National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell. But the Saints clearly controlled their own fate in regard to signing Brees to a long-term contract. In retrospect, penning a $100 million contract to keep Brees in New Orleans seems so obvious that it's hardly a shock that the final moments of the deal happened so quickly.

  "Obviously it's been a long process to this point," Brees said to Bobby Hebert and Kristian Garic on WWL-AM soon after signing his deal. "Once we were here, it was 'bam, bam, bam' — and then we were done."

It's a testament to Brees' worth as a player that despite the drawn-out contract negotiations, snipes delivered through the media and the NFL's general business slog that Brees was ready to get back to work as soon as he signed his new deal. When training camp started, there was the same old Brees, zipping passes to receivers, buying sno-balls for teammates and fans and playing with his young sons after practice. He was nearly flawless in the Saints' opening preseason win against the Arizona Cardinals Aug. 5. If anything, Brees may be working harder than before.

  "I take it as a huge responsibility," he told Hebert and Garic about his new salary. "I've got to go out every day and earn it and show people why you're at that level."

  So far, there's no doubt Brees has been worth every penny.

click to enlarge Jimmy Graham

But how will the bountygate suspensions affect the team?

  The easy answer is that the Saints have such well-coached players that the seasonlong loss of coach Sean Payton won't affect them at all going forward. After the Saints' win over Arizona, a reporter asked running back Pierre Thomas what it felt like not having Payton on the sidelines.

  "It felt the same," Thomas answered.

  Of course, we're just two preseason games into the year, and Thomas had just had a brief opportunity to see his suspended coach during the NFL Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, the day before the Arizona matchup. But there's really no telling what effect Payton's absence will have on the Black and Gold.

  For all the leadership and skill Brees brings to the field, Payton has been the one who instilled the aggressive attitude that has come to define the Saints offense in recent years. There's no doubt Brees knows how to call his offense and isn't afraid to look downfield, but will interim head coach Joe Vitt or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (who likely will take the head coaching responsibilities during the six games Vitt serves his own suspension) have the same fearlessness Payton had in tight situations?

  Vitt has some experience calling games from the field after Payton broke his leg last season. But the head coach still attended every game and was in a booth, a radio call away from Vitt and Brees, at all times. Spagnuolo also has head coaching experience, but his 10-38 record in three seasons with the St. Louis Rams is more indicative of why he's back to defensive coordinator than of his play-calling prowess.

  The bottom line: Payton is the man who went for an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl. Do Spagnuolo and Vitt have the stones to make the same sort of call? Only time will tell. Spagnuolo, though, will have more on his plate than just calling plays the first six weeks of the season. Which brings us to our next question.

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