Whatever Drew Brees and Sean Payton do for the rest of their NFL careers, there will be no way to match the magic they created in those wondrous first few seasons after the Saints returned to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
They orchestrated memorable runs to the NFC title game in the 2006 season and to a Super Bowl title three years later. They reinvigorated a team that had been synonymous with losing, the ‘Aints and their fans with bags over their heads, and they became sources of pride and symbols of unity for a city still putting itself back together. That was about so much more than football.
It’s only about football now for Brees, the quarterback who has been one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, and Payton, the coach whose offense has made Brees so successful. But as the Saints prepare to host the Carolina Panthers this Sunday in their first playoff game in four years, there is one thought: It sure would be nice to do it again.
“To be playing, to be in the hunt, to be making a run — absolutely, this is great,” Brees said when he met with reporters this week.
The chances for Brees to get back to the Super Bowl are dwindling. He turns 39 this month and is in his 17th NFL season. He is eligible for free agency after this season and, although it is highly unlikely he leaves the Saints for another franchise, there are no guarantees he will get back to this point, with a team that’s this good around him and such a viable opportunity to win another championship.
So often over the years, the Saints have been all about Brees, who has five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford have one each.) Brees’s Saints too often have been deficient when it comes to being able to run the football and play defense. Not so this season: They have two Pro Bowl running backs — Mark Ingram and dynamic rookie Alvin Kamara — and they ranked fifth in the league in rushing offense. They ranked 10th in scoring defense.
“It sure is nice,” Brees said. “I mean, listen, does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mind-set going into the game? No. It’s just when you add up the number of throws . . . it’s probably my fewest attempts in a long time, right? So if you’re taking away five, seven, 10 attempts a game and those are going to the run game, well, that means that you’re doing something right in the run game. And it probably means you’re playing good defense because you’re not in a position where you have to throw the ball or get big chunks [of yardage].
“Still, my mind-set doesn’t change during the course of preparation or the efficiency at which I want to play at. I still think positive plays. I still think taking care of the football and all those things. But I think at the end of the day, what has it done for me? Well, it doesn’t force me to have to take as many chances.”
Brees threw for “only” 4,334 yards, his fewest in a season since 2005, when he was with the San Diego Chargers. His 536 passing attempts were his fewest in a season since 2009 and his fewest in a season in which he played all 16 games since 2005. But he set an NFL single-season record by completing 72.0 percent of his passes. He threw only eight interceptions, and his passer rating of 103.9 was his highest in a season since 2013.
The Saints will attempt to beat the Panthers for the third time this season. The first of those victories came in Week 3 at Charlotte after the Saints had begun the season 0-2. That started an eight-game winning streak. They lost Sunday’s regular season finale at Tampa Bay but won the NFC South crown when the Panthers lost in Atlanta.
“Look, it’s a second season,” Payton said Sunday. “So there’s that element of, ‘Man, you won the NFC South.’ And then there’s that other element of ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do here to get ready to play at our best starting next week at home.’ We expect a real good crowd, home playoff game in New Orleans. . . . So we’ll be excited. We’ll be ready to go.”
The Saints are the No. 4 seed in a wide-open NFC playoff field in which the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles have looked vulnerable since losing quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury.
This will be the first home playoff game for the Saints since the 2011 season. It has been a bumpy ride since then. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season by the NFL as part of the Bountygate scandal. He returned and the Saints reached the playoffs in the 2013 season. But then came three straight 7-9 seasons.
“We went through a little bit of a roller-coaster ride there in ’14, ’15 obviously, with the roster turning over and just trying to find ourselves again, reestablish what we had built when Sean first got here in 2006,” Brees said. “And I think that’s what was realized, that we need to go out and acquire the right type of guys and really value character, toughness and intelligence in the way that we draft, in the way that we go out and look at free agents. . . . You look around the locker room, you see those types of guys. And it’s the reason why we’re successful.”
It was an emotional week for Brees, who began his preparations for this game while spending two days in Texas to attend the funeral of his grandfather, Ray Akins, a World War II veteran and former high school football coach.
“It was obviously very sad, the passing of my grandfather,” Brees said. “But I really came back energized from the last two days just being with my family and with friends and with guys that played for my grandfather and just listening to the stories again. It just reemphasized to me what a great man he was and just what a wise man he was and just a true American hero. But not only that: He was my hero.”
Brees must gear up quickly for what just might be his last, best chance to get back to the Super Bowl. But if he has an increased feeling of urgency because he senses the window closing, he isn’t saying so.
“I approach every game the same way, you know?” he said. “I prepare like every game could be my last or it’s a playoff game or I’ve got something to prove, and I’ve got an edge. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, the playoffs are here. Okay, time to ramp it up. Things are a little more important.’ It’s always important. So for me, the preparation is no different.”