METAIRIE, La. -- Eight miles from the New Orleans Saints' training facility, on a football field at Tulane University last May, quarterback Drew Brees rallied 37 of his teammates together for what would be the most organized player-only workouts of the 2011 lockout.
No other team's practices so closely resembled the real thing, a testimony to Brees' leadership and commitment to the Saints' organization. It was impressive. It was inspiring. It was ... mostly overrated.
One year later, as Brees' contract-related absence at the first set of veteran offseason practices this week creates temptation for some mild panic, let's all be sure to incorporate some recent history before getting too extreme about this situation.
Remember last year's regular-season opener? When the Green Bay Packers defeated the Saints 42-34 in a high-scoring shootout? After an offseason in which many questioned Packers QB Aaron Rodgers for failing to initiate player-only practices during the lockout -- yes, the way Brees did -- Rodgers responded with some very sharp sarcasm in his postgame press conference.
"It was a good start for us," said Rodgers, following a game that included touchdowns on the first three possessions. "I've got to ask myself, 'What would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?' "
Let's all remember that lesson now.
Sure, it's also tempting to suggest Brees' absence from these workouts is all the more important because of Sean Payton's suspension. No doubt, it was a strange and empty site Thursday to see Chase Daniel taking snaps under center without being able to look somewhere behind him to find Brees and Payton side-by-side.
But it would also be overly sensational to lump all of New Orleans' current drama into one neat pile as a way to amplify the wonder about the Saints' chances of success in 2012. This team deserves credit, too. On Thursday, interim coach Joe Vitt and several offensive players remained calm and rational about the situation.
"Drew is the Offensive Player of the Year in the National Football League," Vitt said. "Obviously, we miss him. He is going to be here. I think this has been a great opportunity for Chase to really showcase his skills.
"It can't be a distraction. We can only coach the guys that are here. We had practice today and a lot of you guys here saw the tempo. You saw the way they practiced and it has been good."
The focus as it pertains to the Brees' contract situation should instead be directed two months down the road. Not until July 16 at 4 p.m. -- the deadline for teams to sign franchise players to long-term deals -- should we start to wonder just how much Brees' status could impact the upcoming season.
If that deadline comes and goes without a new contract, Brees will then have two choices: 1) He can sign his one-year franchise tender worth $16.371; or 2) he can continue to stay away. If he indeed does the latter, that's when mild concern becomes valid. And here's why: A holdout at that point would be only out of spite, since not even his loudest cries or sharpest negotiations would allow for a new deal to get done. NFL rules prohibit it beyond that July 16 deadline.
At this point, Saints fans should simply hope -- and it seems reasonable to do so -- that cooler heads eventually will prevail, negotiations will merge closer to one another's demands as July 16 approaches and a deal gets done. Should it go down that way, or should Brees return to practices after July 16 anyway, there will be no reason to worry about these current months.
"Drew is our guy," wide receiver Lance Moore said. "Not to go into contract talks or anything like that, but the guy deserves whatever he wants, in my book. And until he gets that, obviously we'll be disappointed. But we can't stop our work. We can't let that affect what we are doing here.
"When Drew eventually gets his deal done, he'll be ready and we'll be ready for him. Hopefully, it will be just like old times."
Brees would return to a receiving corps that includes the familiar hands of Moore, Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, as well as Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. Sure, he'd have to work on timing with rookies like Nick Toon. But hey, he's Drew Brees.
And although it's going to also be a major adjustment for Brees to work without Payton this season, let's not forget about the long-standing relationship with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Brees spent four years in San Diego with Carmichael before they both began working magic in New Orleans together, too.
"You just know that the way (Brees) prepares and the way that he studies teams, he is going to be right on target and on point, and we're free to just go out there and play ball," Moore said.
Brees' absence eventually could become a massive problem for this team -- even bigger than Payton's one-year suspension. And if he isn't back with the organization either after signing a new contract or after the July 16 deadline passes, it definitely will be time to sound the alarm.
For now, there is plenty of work still to be done without Brees around. Vitt is trying to get accustomed to running this team. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is trying to install an entirely new defense. And everyone is trying to tighten up, given the tasks ahead.
Would it be nice to have Brees on board to help keep this train headed in an appropriate direction? Sure it would. It's just not a reason to panic. Not yet.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington