Saving grace

Drew Brees has helped rebuild the Saints and their city, now it's their turn

Updated: January 13, 2010, 3:22 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This column appears in the January 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Drew Brees places his foot on the end zone line, looks out across the dark, cavernous practice field in front of him and shivers at the unfamiliar feeling in his stomach.

Just 18 hours earlier, the Saints were upset at home by the hapless Bucs. As a result, instead of possibly getting today off, Brees and his teammates line up shoulder-to-shoulder for the one thing they dread most: Monday-morning wind sprints -- in this case, 100-yard striders, 10 of them, at a pace between a jog and a sprint. Brees usually owns this drill; after crossing the line first (always), he'll bolt an extra 10 yards, tap the next downfield marker with his foot and sprint back to the start, long before most of the other Saints arrive. But right now, New Orleans' record-breaking QB is tired and sore, and the field in front of him seems to stretch out endlessly to the horizon.

As the players quietly ready themselves, the coaching staff strolls onto the field. On some level, this is the most important moment of the Saints' season. How will a team that was once chasing perfection respond to its first taste of adversity, with the playoffs looming? Whatever the answer is, it will come from the captain of the offense. Many people think Brees saved New Orleans when he signed here in 2006. Brees insists it's the other way around, and he sees every game as his chance to return the favor.

A whistle cracks the cold silence.

The mass of bodies pushes forward, together, off the line. Brees moves with them, slowly.

Let's finally call Drew Brees exactly what he is: one of the NFL's all-time great passers. In 2009, he became the second player in league history (after Peyton Manning) to throw for 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He also set the NFL record for completion percentage (70.6%), while finishing with a league-best 109.6 QB rating. But nothing is more impressive than the way Brees has transformed the Aints. This was a franchise with one playoff win in its first 39 seasons, a team that had turned the brown paper bag into a fan fashion statement. Now the top-seeded Saints are the NFL's most explosive and entertaining team.