This is the same team, after all, that didn't much care about numbers back in 2006 when it first signed Brees. At the time, Brees' right arm was in a sling from shoulder surgery and the Saints still offered him a six-year, $60 million deal. New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis even threw in an extra $2 million just to get the deal done. Loomis, of course, was trying to put the Saints back together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so maybe his perspective was different.
"What's the difference over a couple of million dollars?" Loomis said at the time while standing at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando in 2006.
This year, Loomis is trying to keep the Saints together after commissioner Roger Goodell blew through town this offseason with heavy sanctions. Yet despite Brees' stunning list of accomplishments over the past six years, including breaking Dan Marino's single-season mark for most passing yards in '11, Loomis chose to fight a long battle over a couple of million dollars a year.
On Friday, Brees reportedly agreed to a five-year, $100 million contract with the Saints. The deal, which comes three days before Monday's deadline to sign franchised players long-term, includes $60 million guaranteed over the first three years of the contract.
Brees' agent, the powerful and strong-willed Tom Condon, had been toying with asking for as much as $23 million per year. Loomis had hoped to keep the deal in the range of $18 million a year. Ultimately, both relented, but not before Brees pushed the plateau for new contracts to a higher level. That's important for the rest of the season because contracts for other positions are largely based on what quarterbacks earn. That ripple effect is a subject for another time. For now, let's focus on the Saints. Specifically, Brees can officially now go about repairing the damage done to the team this offseason by the bounty scandal. How does Brees do that?
Brees isn't just the quarterback of the Saints; he is the de facto coach in the absence of Sean Payton, who is serving a one-year suspension for his role in the bounty scandal. Sure, Joe Vitt has the interim head coach title, but Brees is the guy who every player (and even most coaches) is going to look to for answers as the Saints navigate a challenging 2012 season.
The most shocking part of this offseason is that the Saints, starting with Loomis and owner Tom Benson, didn't seem to realize (or value) that. That's telling as to why the Saints have had such a poor history up until the past six years. Loomis and Benson lacked the vision it took to win and only got it when they had the good fortune to hire Payton and sign Brees when he was damaged goods.
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Now, at a time when the team could have used Brees around the building as much as possible, Loomis decided to play hardball until now. This negotiation was so predictable that it could have been carried out by off-Broadway actors. Loomis spent the early part of the offseason defending his silly position while Condon stood his ground and just waited, knowing that Loomis was eventually going to buckle.
Ultimately, the Saints were going to give Brees the number he deserved. In the grand scheme of the NFL, Brees is a bargain at $20 million a year. The fact that the Saints made the best player in team history wait to get paid is a true head-scratcher. But that's just what they did, even as the rest of the team was in disarray amid the scandal. Instead of settling one issue and bringing the team's best leader back for the offseason program, the Saints let this situation fester. It became just another distraction in one of the most muddled situations in league history.
Instead of having Brees around to keep the rest of the team focused on the task at hand, Loomis and Benson left the players to wonder if Brees was going to play this season (he said he wouldn't play under a one-year deal) and wonder why Brees had to play this game.
"I mean, how much more does that guy have to do to get his money?" one teammate wondered earlier this month.
It's a great question that only Loomis and Benson can really answer. While it's impossible to quantify, their lack of urgency to get this deal done makes the task of trying to win this season that much harder.
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That's a shame because the Saints are one of the top half-dozen teams in the NFL, on paper. Even without Payton, the Saints are a likely playoff team and a Super Bowl contender. But getting there will require that a lot of things fall into place, particularly if linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith ultimately serve their league-imposed suspensions.
The Saints could have helped the process with a little more foresight.
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