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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.

How will Spags change the Saints' defense?

  This really should be the greatest concern for the Who Dat Nation because — with or without Payton — it's a good bet the Saints won't lose games because of their offense. At least, not in the way the Black and Gold lost last season's divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

  San Francisco exposed the Saints' defense as being too slow up the middle and taking too many chances with a suspect secondary. Aside from Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer, the Saints are starved for proven young talent among defensive backs. Roman Harper is coming off one of his worst seasons (as far as missed tackles are concerned) and the rest of the Saints secondary is filled with young, inexperienced players. On top of that, Jonathan Vilma's suspension means the Saints come into this season with three brand-new linebackers.

  There is good news, though. NFL scouts consider free agent pickups Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne to be as good if not better than Vilma, which means the Saints may be able to maintain or improve their 12-ranked rushing defense.

click to enlarge Curtis Lofton

  There's more good news. For those with bad long-term memory, it's useful to look back at the last time Spagnuolo was a defensive coordinator. In 2007, he was leading what had been a group of no-name New York Giants defenders in a pummeling of the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

What do Giants fans remember about Spagnuolo?

  Ed Valentine, editor of the venerable Giants blog Big Blue View (www.bigblueview.com), says his most vivid recollections of the defensive coordinator was his "fiery demeanor on the sideline" and his "no-holds-barred approach to defense." When asked whether Spagnuolo could take a Saints defense with many new faces and work them into a successful and imposing unity, Valentine was succinct: "He's up to the challenge."

  So no shortcomings or potential frustrations with Spags, like some fans had with Williams?

  "I think you would have to ask St. Louis fans what frustrated them about Spagnuolo," he replied.

But will the coaching even matter if Bountygate continues to be a distraction?

  Goodell's punishment of the Saints for the pay-for-play schemes has been the biggest Saints-related story during the offseason. Vilma is fighting the NFL in federal court to get his suspension overturned.

  Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University's sports law program, has followed Vilma's suit against the NFL and has sat in on a few hearings. Feldman told Gambit that Vilma faces an uphill battle, but one that could have lasting repercussions for the entire NFL. "The big-picture fight here is about the scope of the commisioner's powers," Feldman said.

  Vilma and the Saints are beholden to a collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners that gave the commissioner "extremely broad powers." In other words, Goodell has complete authority to punish players for actions he believes are detrimental to the league. The problem for Vilma is that the Saints basically admitted they broke NFL rules and that some sort of pay-for-play scheme was in place.

  What Vilma, Brees, Payton, Vitt and anyone wearing Black and Gold in Louisiana has argued is that what the Saints did was a violation of the salary cap, not an on- or off-field violation that merited disciplinary action from the commissioner. Where Goodell says the Saints were paying players to injure opponents, the Saints argue they paid players to "make plays."

  Regardless, it's clear Goodell is out to change the culture of football to serve the interest of the league and its product, Feldman said. "This is more about the health and safety of [the NFL's] players and the health and safety of their products," he said. "Football is an inherently dangerous game. But the league can take steps to make it safer."

click to enlarge Drew Brees
  • Drew Brees in training camp in late July.

  Goodell's policies — and Goodell himself — may not be popular, but Feldman believes the commissioner is working in the best interest of the league. While Brees says that no player can trust the commissioner and Vilma's lawsuit seeks to strike a blow against Goodell's authority, Feldman says federal judges are never eager to overturn bylaws established in collective bargaining agreements between private entities. Right now, NFL bylaws make Goodell judge, jury, executioner and appeals judge all in one. And it doesn't appear that will change any time soon.

  So is Goodell using his evil powers to keep the Saints from playing in the 2013 Super Bowl in the Superdome?

  Of all the insane message board conspiracy theories, the idea that Goodell came down on the Saints for Bountygate so New Orleans wouldn't have a team in the Super Bowl — and, thus, two other teams with traveling fanbases would give the NFL more money — is as ridiculous as it sounds.

  The Super Bowl is practically a national holiday. People from all over the country will descend on New Orleans regardless of who is playing for the Lombardi Trophy, because it's one of the biggest media events of the year. The reason Goodell came down on the Saints is because the franchise broke the rules and thumbed its nose at him in the process.

What Who Dats everywhere really should fear: The past 11 teams that have hosted a Super Bowl have not only failed to play in the big game, but didn't even make it to the playoffs. The last team that came close to playing the Super Bowl on its home field was the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost in the NFC wild card playoff round. There are many reasons why no team has been able to play a Super Bowl on their home field — injuries, bad luck, lack of talent, overwhelming pressure — but the commissioner going out of his way to sabotage a team's season is not one of them.

  The Saints are in the unique position in which they face no pressure to be Super Bowl champs or even make the playoffs. In a way, Goodell has given the Saints a perfect alibi should the team perform poorly this season. After all, what is an NFL team without its head coach?

  Brees and the Saints have used the "Us versus the world" mentality as motivation, repeating how unfair the suspensions are. In many ways, they're taking a page out of the New England Patriots' playbook. Facing stiff penalties from Goodell for their own cheating scandal, the 2006 Patriots went on to have an undefeated season, though they fell short of winning a title.

  With the $100 million man at the lead, the Saints are looking to do that Patriots team one better by being the first team to win a Super Bowl on its home field — without its head coach and right in front of the man suspended that coach.

  That would be true football history.

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