NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees could've played it safe. He could've taken another week to rest his surgically repaired right thumb, let backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater keep rolling and then use the New Orleans Saints' bye week to chill even more. The fact that Brees didn't choose that route says plenty about what he means to this team. It also says something about what the Saints have meant to him.
The easy narrative coming out of the Saints' 31-9 win over the Arizona Cardinals was that Brees enjoyed an impressive afternoon after five weeks of being sidelined. He put up the kind of numbers New Orleans has come to expect from him -- completing 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards with three touchdowns and one interception -- and he didn't show any significant signs of rust. The more interesting storyline coming out of this game was how much stronger the Saints became in his absence. They came into this season as arguably the best team in the NFC and now there's even an extra layer of toughness that resonates within their locker room.
Yes, this game was about Brees being back with his boys. It was also about how this team's success has been about much more than him over the last few years.
"I know the thought would be, 'Why don't you just wait until after the bye week (to return)?,' " Brees said after this win. "Everything seems to be going well so why take the chance? I'm a football player. That gratitude that came over me right before this game is just that I'm blessed to play this game. I love this game and I love my teammates. ... And that was my motivating factor through this whole thing -- to get back so I can be healthy and I can play for those guys."
That attitude didn't come from a place of concern. Brees tore a ligament in his thumb in a Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and the Saints didn't lose again in the next five games. Their defense stiffened, their running game produced and Bridgewater delivered so consistently in emergency duty that fans were cheering him when cameras found him dancing on the sidelines in this contest. This is the kind of stuff that helps teams win championships.
The Saints obviously didn't want to lose their future Hall of Fame quarterback for an extended period of time. What they learned about themselves in his absence, though, is that they're constructed in such a way that they have a variety of methods to beat teams. They head into their bye week with a 7-1 record and even more confidence about their ability to reach the Super Bowl after two consecutive seasons that ended with heartbreaking playoff defeats. Surviving without Brees should just give them a greater faith in where they're heading.
"This offense, just for my first year in it, I've been amazed at how it's [operated] like clockwork," Saints running back Latavius Murray said. "As an offensive player, I love it. For one quarterback (Bridgewater) to step in and not miss a beat and then for Drew to come back and not miss a beat, that's what it's all about. It shows the kind of team that we have and the kind of offense that we have."
Brees did admit to feeling some anxiety prior to his return. He heard from plenty of fans who didn't want him to risk his thumb too early and he also acknowledged that it was an adjustment to go nearly five weeks without any kind of formal practice. Brees explained that part of his rehabilitation process involved a throwing schedule that started with him throwing Nerf footballs until he could handle the ones used in the NFL. The Saints players didn't even know if he would be ready to play when they started practicing last week.
Brees did say he had always hoped this Arizona game would be the moment he returned. He felt better about accomplishing that feat when he threw the ball in practice, especially last Thursday. That was the first time he felt like he could make all the throws he needed to make in a game. As Brees said, "I wanted to push it as much as we [could]. A lot of it was just the ability to get a grip on the ball and throw it accurately and just be myself and play confidently. As soon as I could grip it and rip it, I wanted to play."
The nice thing for Brees is that he didn't have to worry about doing too much. The Saints came into this game with a strategy built around controlling the clock. They didn't want Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray to generate explosive plays or find a rhythm in Arizona's up-tempo offense. So the Saints simply relied heavily on Latavius Murray (who ran for 102 yards, added another 55 on nine receptions and scored two touchdowns) while their defense dominated the Cardinals so thoroughly that Arizona finished with 237 total yards and two third-down conversions in 12 attempts.
All Brees had to do was find his own groove. He completed 20 of 27 passes in the first half, mostly on short attempts that helped the Saints hold a 10-6 lead after two quarters. He spread the football around to nine different receivers over the course of the game, with Pro Bowler Michael Thomas catching 11 balls for 112 yards and a score. The only glaring mistake Brees made was an interception he threw while forcing the ball into double coverage when Thomas was open on an underneath route. "I got greedy," he said.
You really can't blame Brees for pushing his luck. The man hadn't played in nearly a month in a half and there was no doubting how much this return meant to him. The only complaint he had after the contest revolved around the protective splint he wore during the game. Brees vowed that he would ditch that piece of equipment as soon as he possibly can.
Aside from that, both he and Saints coach Sean Payton were pleased with how this return went on a day when the Saints amassed 510 total yards. Payton was equally thrilled about how his team has responded to adversity, especially since Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara missed his second straight game while nursing knee and ankle injuries.
"Obviously, we have a lot of football left," Payton said. "You go through momentum cycles and sometimes you're trying to create momentum. I would say this is a pretty close, resilient group. I think they care a lot about each other, they understand how to win and they understand how difficult it is to win."
Winning in the NFL is even harder when franchises lose starting quarterbacks. Other teams in the league have shown a similar ability to weather such a dilemma this season (Carolina and Indianapolis) while others have simply imploded (Pittsburgh). However, no team has looked as good as the Saints have without a signal-caller of Brees' stature. It's fair to say that many people expected this team to barely stay above .500 when he went down.
The Saints proved that was foolish thinking. They've fielded a championship-caliber team the last three years and there were plenty of factors that played into that. However, they'd be the first ones to tell you that Sunday's win was special for all the obvious reasons. Their leader was finally back and that means life in New Orleans is about to get a whole lot better.