Payton, Vitt and Loomis will be on hand to watch Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas’ record

At one time, we thought that the most amazing and unprecedented aspect of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees breaking Johnny Unitas' record of 47 straight regular-season games with at least one touchdown pass would be the fact that anybody broke it at all. For decades, Unitas' mark -- which was once considered to be the NFL's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak -- was thought to be virtually unbreakable, though the explosion in passing numbers in the last 10 years has certainly made it far more vulnerable.

But when Brees takes the field at the Superdome this Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, he will have some special and unexpected guests. As first reported by WVUE-TV, Saints head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis -- all currently suspended from the league for their roles in the team's alleged bounty scandal -- will be in the building to watch Brees try and grab that mark with a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game.

"I am excited for our team and for them," Brees said in a text message to ESPN's Pat Yasinkas. "It adds another element to what we hope to be a very special night."

[More: Bold statements from the first quarter of the 2012 NFL season]

Brees had requested permission for the three men to be in attendance -- they all came to New Orleans in 2006, as Brees did, to turn around a franchise and bring hope to a city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The NFL, bound to a point after allowing former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to attend last Sunday's Seattle Seahawks-St. Louis Rams game, granted Brees' request. Williams is suspended from the NFL indefinitely.

The NFL's statement:

"Drew Brees requested permission for Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, and Joe Vitt to attend Sunday night's game in which Drew will attempt to set the record of 48 straight games with a touchdown pass. Commissioner [Roger] Goodell has granted that permission. Coaches Payton and Vitt and Mickey Loomis will be permitted to watch the game in a private area of the stadium and will have no contact with the team."

On Tuesday, Payton said that he would not be in attendance, but that was obviously before he was informed that he would be allowed to do so. "I've kind of got a full plate here. A handful of people texted me that. Right now, I'll be able to watch it, and shoot, just being able to watch it on TV is no different than being there in person. It's just an honor to be connected to this."

Beyond Brees' obvious link to the three guys who will be cordoned off, parole-style, there are a few more interesting connections in this game. Brees was selected by the Chargers in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, and the Saints picked him up as a free agent before the 2006 season despite the fact that he was recovering from a severe shoulder injury, and the Chargers had cast him aside. Philip Rivers has been great for the Chargers, but Brees has been the most productive and prolific quarterback in the NFL over the past half-decade, and he broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record in 2011. Now, he leads a Saints team decimated by the bounty fallout and trying to bounce back from an 0-4 start.

Receiver Robert Meachem, who moved from the Saints to the Chargers in the offseason, still considers it an honor to have played with Brees. "It's a special feeling to even play with a quarterback like Drew and everything he's accomplished, and we've accomplished playing together," Meachem recalled to "He's a hard-working guy and he's going to do everything he can to be the best."

For Brees, the connection to the people who have helped him get to this point is the most important thing, and he recently outlined an interesting and poignant connection between the Saints' organization and Unitas' legacy.

"Coach Joe Vitt, who's not with us right now, when Joe Vitt was actually coaching with the Baltimore Colts, he came down with cancer," Brees said. "One of the guys who came to visit him was Johnny Unitas. I always thought that was something that told a lot about how Mr. Unitas was as a man, and obviously as a football player what he stood for. He's got a lot of records in this league. To be there next to him with this one, it's an honor."

Brees may not be able to celebrate a remarkable accomplishment with his longtime comrades as he'd like to, but at the very least, he'll be able to remember what once was for one day in what has been a fractured season.

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