Philadelphia, PA – The question isn't if Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will ever come to an agreement on a long-term contract -- the benefits to each side are so favorable that anything other than doing so makes absolutely no sense.
Still, as the most prominent and important player negotiation not involving Peyton Manning of this offseason keeps dragging at a pace that's completely contradictory to the Saints' quick-striking offense, both the team and its record-breaking quarterback continue to gamble with their respective credibility as the deadline draws near.
Brees' victory in his grievance case against the Saints and the NFL, in which independent arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled on Tuesday that the 2011 Offensive Player of the Year can be considered a three-time recipient of the franchise tag if New Orleans applies the designation for next season, should give the Saints additional incentive to cutting a deal by July 16, the last day clubs can negotiate with franchise players. The decision allows Brees to be eligible for a 144 percent raise if he's again tagged in 2013, which would increase his salary to a whopping $23.574 million for that year.
One can make a very strong argument that Brees is worth every penny of that exorbitant rate of pay. He's been the savior of a franchise that hit rock bottom the year before his arrival, winning a mere three times during a 2005 season filled with heartache and adversity, and an absolute shining light to a city that had been in ruins due to the tragic devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans made the playoffs just once in the 13-year span that preceded the amazingly savvy additions of Brees and head coach Sean Payton in 2006. In six seasons since, the Saints have won 62 regular season games -- second only to Green Bay (63) for tops in the NFC -- reached the postseason four times, captured three division titles and claimed their first and only world championship.
Needless to say, the team has gotten well more than its money's worth when it signed Brees to a $60 million pact six years ago, a risky venture at the time for a quarterback coming off career-threatening surgery to his throwing shoulder. A roll of the dice for sure, but a leap of faith that turned out to be one heck of a bargain in the end.
With less-credentialed cohorts such as Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Michael Vick all securing contracts with a higher average salary, there's little question that Brees has been underpaid. And he probably still would be if the Saints decide to let him play out this season under the franchise figure of $16.371 million. But with little wiggle room under the cap at the moment and aspirations that remain high even after Payton's league-imposed exile and the Bountygate repercussions, it'd be in the club's best interest to work out a multi-year deal that lessens his short-term hit.
And Brees clearly doesn't have a desire to play anywhere else. He's on a legitimate Super Bowl contender with a pass-happy offense perfectly suited to his strengths, not to mention an icon in a community in which he and his wife have invested enormous amounts of their time and resources towards charitable causes.
So, what's the holdup here?
Well, for one, the five-year, $96 million deal Manning got from Denver in March despite not playing a single down last season certainly didn't help untangle what was already an complicated process between Brees and the Saints. Neither did Burbank's judgement to a great degree, as New Orleans still holds some leverage with the exclusive franchise tag. Brees can't play anywhere else unless he forces a trade, and runs the risk of jeopardizing his market value if he gets hurt while playing under the tag in 2012 -- though that wasn't really true in Manning's case.
And as always, there's some ego involved as well.
The dogged competitiveness that's made Brees one of the game's greats on the field has shown up at the bargaining table as well, as his desire to surpass Manning as the league's highest earner has played some part in stalling talks. It's a goal that may be more easily attainable now that he's been determined to be a two-time franchise designee (the first came while with San Diego in 2005, with the Saints arguing that it shouldn't apply since it was from another team), but one that could lead to unintended negative consequences down the line.
Brees could achieve that mark simply by agreeing to be tagged in both 2012 and 2013 (though it's improbable the Saints do so next season), but the ripple effect likely greatly diminishes the chances of accomplishing his other primary objective: winning a second Super Bowl. It would take some awfully creative accounting by general manager Mickey Loomis -- and a whole lot of sacrificing from some of Brees' teammates -- to fit a $23.5 million salary under the current cap without some roster downsizing that compromises New Orleans' championship chances.
As a player who's prided himself on being a leader and harboring a team-first attitude, that's a situation that Brees shouldn't be comfortable with, therefore he'll need to be careful in walking the very fine line between fair compensation and all-out greed.
He's also a smart guy who can see the big picture, however, and the Saints didn't get to their enviable position as one of the NFL's elite by making dumb and short-sighted decisions (regardless of what the league may think on certain issues). That's why when July 16 comes around, there's a real good chance a deal is finally struck.
But as the Saints' eventful history has shown, things are never easy in the Big Easy.