Not since Peyton Manning was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 has there been a Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame caliber quarterback available on the open market. But depending on the direction the New Orleans Saints choose to take their roster in this offseason, Drew Brees could be poised to change that. The 36 year-old signal caller is set to enter the final year of a five-year, $100 million deal that was loaded on the back end and will pay him $30 million for the 2016 season. Brees has staunchly quieted rumours of him and head coach Sean Payton parting ways with the Saints after 2015, but it’s one of those situations that might just be mutually beneficial for all parties involved if Brees were to finish off his career with a different team.
That’s a difficult sentence to write because few professional athletes have meant as much to the city they play for as Brees has for The Big Easy. He signed with the franchise following a decent run with the San Diego Chargers that was cut short by a brutal shoulder injury—many experts were questioning whether he would ever regain his full passing form. Meanwhile, in early 2006, New Orleans was in a similar position of recovery. Just a few months beforehand, the entire metropolitan area had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. The Saints played all of their home games that season away from the familiar confines of the Superdome, which was used during the crisis as a refuge for locals. New Orleans desperately needed whatever hope and positivity it could get—let alone a franchise quarterback and winning football team.
But sometimes things just work out for all the right reasons, which is exactly what happened with Brees and the Saints. The 2006 squad turned everything around for the longtime doormat of a franchise, laying the foundation for a team that would consistently contend for the Super Bowl over the next eight years and win it in the 2010 postseason. Not only has Brees been one of the most productive QBs of all time since signing with New Orleans, he’s had an overwhelmingly great influence in the community, being recognized as the NFL’s 2006 Walter Payton Man of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s 2010 Sportsperson of the Year.
When some of the current salary numbers are taken into account though, it might be time for the magical partnership to end. The Saints have already committed huge amounts of money to players in 2016 and will have the added weight of $14 million in dead money on the cap. Cutting Brees would add $10 million to that total (trading him would be tougher), but it would also clear up lots of space to address more roster holes in other areas. The team has taken steps to rebuild on the fly in recent years, but the wins haven’t followed (7-9 in each of the past two seasons)—and the main reason things haven’t been worse is that Brees is still performing at an extremely high level. Even in a middling year for the team, he’s managed to lead the Saints to the league’s highest ranked passing offense in terms of yards per game. But is it really prudent to hold on to a still elite but quickly aging QB when you’re going to have your hands tied financially and set back the rebuilding process?
If the Saints decide that it isn’t, then there’ll be a handful of teams eager to go after Brees. As it turns out, most of them are just as downtrodden (from a football perspective) as New Orleans was when it lucked into Brees. Between the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, and St. Louis (Los Angeles?) Rams, which destination offers Brees the best opportunity to play the role of savior 10 years after doing it the first time?
After the Toronto Blue Jays snapped their 22-year postseason drought this fall (YEAH WE DID!!!!!), the Bills took over the distinction of being the ‘Big 4’ American pro sports team that has gone the longest without a playoff berth. It’s not easy to rule a division when Tom Brady is playing in it every season—the only time anyone has won the AFC East outside of New England since Tom Brady began starting was the 2008 Miami Dolphins (the year Brady went down in Week 1 with a season-ending injury)—but Buffalo’s own QB issues have been equally detrimental to its attempts at contending. You can qualify for the postseason without a ‘franchise QB,’ but doing so is far rarer for teams that don’t have such a luxury. While the New York Jets have managed to squeeze out a few Wild Card seasons with quarterback play from the likes of Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez that was just good enough to get them into the playoffs, things haven’t quite worked out that way for the Bills. First J.P. Losman was supposed to be the answer, then Trent Edwards, then E.J. Manuel; rinse, lather, repeat.
Current starter Tyrod Taylor came out of nowhere to earn the starting job in training camp this year and he’s certainly done some good things for this football team. Without his excellent scrambling ability, there’s no way Buffalo leads the league in rushing yards per game as it has in 2015. Maybe with a little more polishing he could be the Bills’ long-term answer at QB, but they shouldn’t wait around to find out. Much like the aforementioned Jays did when they put all their chips on the table and dealt for David Price/Troy Tulowitzki, Buffalo should 100% go after Brees if he becomes available (plus, Taylor is on a cheap contract that allows for more money to be allocated to the QB position). We’ve seen the Bills bring in big name players like Terrell Owens and Mario Williams fairly recently, but they never had the QB in place to make everything tick. Buffalo hasn’t finished with less than six wins since 2010; this is a team that knows how to compete, it just needs someone like Brees to get it over the hump and into the playoffs.
When you take a look at the offensive weapons that are already on the Bills’ roster, it’s easy to imagine him doing that. Compared to past seasons LeSean McCoy has had a bit of a down year running the football, but he’s still in his prime and shouldn’t be taken lightly by opposing teams. With the emergence of rookie Karlos Williams and his six rushing touchdowns, Buffalo has a scary two-headed rushing attack. No disrespect to Marques Colston, but Sammy Watkins has the potential to be the best wide receiver Brees has ever played with. There aren’t really any tantalizing receiving options behind Watkins on the Bills’ roster right now, but if you’re looking for someone to revive Percy Harvin’s career, Brees is a pretty good candidate.
The last quarterback to guide Buffalo to the playoffs was Doug Flutie, who—measuring a modest 5’10—also holds the distinction of being the shortest QB to participate in a Pro Bowl since 1970. At 6’0 Drew Brees has a couple of inches on him, but he’s still a shorty by traditional quarterback standards. Going small at the game’s most important position worked for the Bills once, maybe it could once again.
*channeling Jeff Foxworthy* You might be a downtrodden franchise if you’re nickname is The Factory of Sadness. You might be a downtrodden franchise if you’ve had five different head coaches in the last 10 years. You might be a downtrodden franchise if the other teams in your division have won 25% of the last 16 Super Bowls while you’ve made one lone playoff appearance. You might be a downtrodden franchise if one of those teams used to technically belong to your city. You might be a downtrodden franchise if your prodigal young receiver gets suspended for an entire season and might not ever play in the NFL again. You might be a downtrodden franchise if you still kind of get excited when Johnny Manziel plays even though you know he’s basically Tim Tebow’s evil twin.
Yes, the Cleveland Browns are one hell of a downtrodden franchise. Not only have they been historically inept since the team was reincarnated in 1999, but the rest of the AFC North has been exemplary in terms of coaching stability and on-field success. Cleveland finds itself in a frustrating Catch-22 where it wants to commit to a coach who can establish a successful long-term program, but it can’t even show enough signs of growth in the short-term to justify doing so.
Like Buffalo, part of the Browns’ woes stem from their inability to land a franchise QB. While their competition got lucky, they never quite found their Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco or Andy Dalton—despite their trove of high draft picks over the years.
With no clear cut Andrew Luck or Cam Newton-type of elite QB prospect waiting for them in the 2016 draft, the Browns may be forced to explore other options if they want to get better under centre. As it stands, their depth chart at the position consists of aging journeyman Josh McCown and intriguing shit disturber Johnny Manziel. Although he’s been slowed down by some injury issues, McCown hasn’t done enough in 2015 to convince anyone that he should be the guy they decide to roll with next year. Originally slotted in as the backup, Manziel came in and won a couple of games as a starter when McCown wasn’t available to play; but by all objective measures, he’s one of the league’s weakest quarterbacks from a performance standpoint—not to mention probably its worst from a leadership/responsibility standpoint. Manziel could still pan out one day, but he shouldn’t warrant much consideration as a prospective starter heading into 2016.
That’s why having a guy like Drew Brees around would make such a difference for this football team. Not only would he solve the productivity issues, he could be the mentor that Manziel so desperately needs. Even if he was placed in the most commendable of locker rooms as a rookie, Manziel likely would have still had trouble staying in line. There’s no way that the directionless Browns franchise has helped the situation, but Brees could go a long way towards changing that. He’s a class act, the type of guy that people naturally rally around and want to emulate. Brees could have the same type of influence that Kurt Warner had late in his career on the Arizona Cardinals, who were a laughingstock until he took them on an unexpected Super Bowl run.
If Brees is going to pull off that kind of a turnaround, Cleveland will certainly need to improve his supporting cast. Guys like Gary Barnidge, Travis Benjamin, and Isiah Crowell aren’t quite as bad as their lack of star power suggests, but there doesn’t figure to be a real difference maker in the Browns’ collection of skill position players right now. As uninspiring as Cleveland’s offense has been, its defense has been even worse. It’s allowed 379.2 total yards per game, which is good for 26th in the league. There are some studs on the roster like Joe Thomas and Joe Haden, but both of their respective units are far from contender worthy.
Cleveland isn’t the most attractive destination for Brees, but it would certainly be a rewarding one if he were to succeed in changing its fortunes. The fans there are incredibly passionate and loyal. If LeBron James doesn’t pull through as the catalyst to breaking Cleveland’s lengthy title drought, maybe Brees could step in and get the job done.
St. Louis Rams
From a historical standpoint the Rams aren’t such a sad sack franchise, but as far as the last decade goes (coincidentally, the same amount of time Brees has been in New Orleans), things have been pretty rough. After experiencing a few down years once all the pieces from The Greatest Show on Turf had left the team, the Rams seemed poised for big things. They had first-overall draft pick Sam Bradford under centre and in his rookie season, St. Louis even played in a winner-take-all division title game against Seattle that they barely lost. The NFC West was weak and the Rams looked like they were on the best trajectory of all four teams. As it turned out, Jim Harbaugh and Bruce Arians showed up and kicked ass, Pete Carroll hit the jackpot with an unheralded 5’11 quarterback, and Bradford never panned out. Oh, and the franchise may now be relocating to Los Angeles in 2016…
Since Jeff Fisher took over as head coach in 2012 the Rams have been competitive, but they haven’t managed to manufacture a single winning record. The NFC West’s improvement has certainly dimmed their prospects, but they’ve actually played decently enough against their division, going 11-12-1 over the past four years. St. Louis competes against the best teams in the league, but it’s had difficulty beating the teams that it should presumably be beating. Every time it feels like the Rams have turned a corner, they go and let unimpressive squad get the better of them.
Now that all the chips from the RGIII trade have been cashed in, it’s time for St. Louis to produce. Its roster has been replenished with talented players at pretty much every position—except for one (fittingly enough, the one that RGIII plays). The team finally gave up on Bradford at QB, but his replacement Nick Foles hasn’t fared much better. The Rams rank 32nd in passing offense, and it’s tough to win in today’s NFL if you can’t throw the football at anything close to a league average rate—even if you have an electric RB like Todd Gurley churning out 100-yard games.
Brees pretty much guarantees you an average passing offense at worst, and with a decent group of receivers, he’ll in all likelihood propel you straight into the upper echelon that the top three or four teams occupy. Combine that with Gurley and a defense that’s absolutely loaded with talent, and you get a team with the potential to oust Arizona and Seattle from the top of the NFC West. Hell, throw in an elite receiver and it could even result in a reboot of The Greatest Show on Turf (okay, probably not, but a spinoff at least!).
There’s a lot of question marks surrounding the St. Louis Rams right now, from the possibility of relocation to Fisher’s job security. But bringing Brees in would take care of the big one that’s plagued the team ever since Marc Bulger went into decline: getting consistent quarterback play.
The Merger’s Pick: Buffalo Bills
Of the three franchises, the Bills offer Brees the best combination of savior impact and likelihood to win right away. This millennium has not been kind to Buffalo, but that could all change with the right QB around. Saints, Bills, Drew, let’s make this happen!