While the unprecedented penalties leveled against the New Orleans Saints in an ugly bounty scandal have done little to clarify the final price tag for Drew Brees, this ordeal has certainly crystalized further the need for a contract to get done.
Now more than ever, the Saints need Brees. And if all of his talk and tweets are to be taken at face value, then so too must Brees need the Saints. It's time to hash the numbers out, for the sake of the fans and the organization, and cement his status as New Orleans quarterback for the next five years. This bounty saga will undoubtedly tarnish the franchise for some time to come. It will be one of the dominant storylines of the 2012 season. The Saints need a gesture of goodwill and a sign of stability. Locking up Brees long term would do just that.
Darlington: Knockout blow?
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is getting through this the only way he knows how -- by grinding ahead, working on signings, molding the roster. He's working through the initial shock of just how steep the penalties are, and trying to maintain strength through normalcy. Signing defensive lineman Brodrick Bunkley literally while the ruling was being handed down was a testament to that. And according to league sources, the Saints continue to closely monitor free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton, knowing there is a good chance that Saints leader Jonathan Vilma could be missing substantial time this season once the player penalties from the bounty scandal are handed down.
Those are the micro issues to consume time and keep one's mind focused on work. But at the macro level, the immediate concern is figuring out how to overcome the loss of head coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season (beginning April 1). Payton is the organization's central nervous system, the voice of the franchise, with a hand in personnel. He's someone who could account for every second of practice and every small detail, and someone who also happens to have one of the brightest and most innovative minds in the game. He perfectly complements both Loomis and Brees. Few can call a better game or make better adjustments. No one has a more symbiotic relationship with his quarterback (making the presence, and mindset, of Brees more important than ever). Few are better at altering the psyche of a team, knowing when to coddle and when to scold. All of that will be lost for 2012.
To me, promoting defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to interim head coach makes the most sense. Spagnuolo just arrived a few months back and was coaching the Rams while the bounty stuff was going on. He has no ties or connections to that and would not have to field daily questions about it. Making him the team's primary conduit to the media immediately creates some breaks with the past and connotes something new. Spagnuolo has already been a head coach. He understands the gig and is experienced enough to lead the defense and handle being Saints CEO, as well. It's going to be difficult enough for New Orleans -- a team predicated on offensive superiority -- to survive the loss of Payton on the sidelines and meeting rooms all season. And while younger assistants Pete Carmichael and Aaron Kromer are building future head coaching résumés of their own, I would avoid disrupting the flowchart and responsibilities of that offensive staff as much as possible. Adding all of the ancillary duties and game-day responsibilities that come with being the head coach would add additional strain.
Once the staff is aligned, then all attention turns to Brees.
New Orleans has until July 15 to work out an extension, and really, it shouldn't go down to the wire. Sans Payton, the Saints need Brees running OTAs next month. They need him to take over that locker room and instill belief in his teammates that they can still win it all. They need him to convince this team that it can overcome any challenge, the way he did post-Katrina. The prospect of Brees being away from the Saints in April, still sitting on that franchise tender as they try to pick up the pieces, would crush fans. And it could crush the team's spirits and what's left of their hopes of winning a Super Bowl on home turf.
That certainly gives some additional leverage to the super star, but that doesn't mean he has to exert it fully. And while Brees may be shooting for that $23 million per season that Peyton Manning was set to earn over the first three years of his old contract with the Colts, that doesn't mean that $20 million a year is an insult, either. There has to be mutual give-and-take here.
What Manning's new deal with the Broncos showed is that, if truly motivated to be in one place, a player can be willing to put in contingencies to protect the team, as well. What complicates things here is that unlike Manning, Brees has been a model of health and durability since arriving in New Orleans -- and certainly one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL in that span. The issue of guaranteed money remains tricky. Manning took $18 million guaranteed -- certainly myself and others believe he could have pushed for much more -- and Brees is going to command a much higher figure. Mario Williams just got $50 million more or less fully guaranteed. And under the old CBA, Sam Bradford pocketed $50 million as the first overall pick. It's worth noting that all of these deals were done by CAA, Brees' agency.
A case could be made that Brees, given all he has accomplished and meant to the city of New Orleans and the Saints franchise, is worth $60 million guaranteed. But does he have to hit that figure? Would $52 million or $55 million provide enough comfort?
Wyche: Message sent
Regardless of the guaranteed total, if Brees is in fact healthy and plays through the life of a new five-year deal, or even deep into it, he is going to be making, when all is said and done, at least $20 million a year. The Saints must realize this. That's going to be the salary floor here, or very close to it. And the Saints must also realize that something in the range of $50 million guaranteed is going to be in play. He's going to make at least roughly $60 million in the first three years of any new deal, no matter how it is structured.
While it may not be $69 million over the first three years, like Manning was set to receive had he been healthy in Indianapolis, it's certainly not a slight, either. I'd think it would be enough for a level-headed, civic-minded, all-around great guy like Brees to be cool with. If the Saints somehow think there is any way to lock up Brees for less than $50 million guaranteed -- and close to $60 million over the first three years -- then shame on them. That would be ridiculously shortsighted.
But with all that is going on with this franchise, we've reached a point where emotion needs to be stifled as much as possible. New Orleans had to apply the franchise tag, given where negotiations were with the league year about to begin. I understand Brees' frustration with that, but it's not a death sentence. Still plenty of time to hash this out between now and when facilities start filling up again next month. It also shouldn't be about being the game's highest-paid player by any particular margin, or shattering some new standard. It certainly wasn't when Tom Brady did his cap-conscious extension on the eve of the 2010 season.
It's time to get over all of that, figure out which number between $18 and $21 million per year everyone can happily agree upon, and move on to the business of trying to restore everything that was plucky and charming and likeable about this organization before its more odious side came to light. And few, outside of Brees, have the personality, spirit and prowess to accomplish that.