|photo courtesy of CBS Sports|
Steve Spagnuolo, Aaron Kromer, Pete Carmichael, Jr., or someone else? How will the team handle yet another interruption, another transition?
Will the newest interim coach be prepared to handle the pressure?
Let me give you an answer: it doesn't really matter.
Regardless of who is listed as "Head Coach" in Payton's absence, this is now Drew Brees' team to lead. It's not so much about Vitt or Spags or Carmichael or Kromer as it is about Brees.
The Saints probably aren't winning a Super Bowl this year simply on the merits of an assistant coach stepping up to "do his job." But they are capable of winning another Super Bowl with Brees fully assuming the role as the team's central personality, motivator, and guiding force. Do you doubt him? He's the figure that everyone in the organization will naturally gravitate towards now. Especially in the face of crisis, should it arise. Mostly, it seems like Brees has been preparing for this since he set foot in New Orleans.
Don't get me wrong. I have ultimate confidence in Carmichael and Spagnuolo handling the technical aspects of strategizing, game-planning, playcalling, and whatnot. But it's in the unforeseen and most challenging of circumstances that a leader is truly relied upon; and Brees moreso than anyone else in the Saints' organization possesses the smarts, instincts, and universal respect to lead the team through the shit if need be. I'm not saying Brees should be the coach; I'm just saying that it's mostly Brees' leadership, not that of an interim coach, that will make the difference when the going gets rough.
More than ever, the Saints aren't just dependent on the limits of Brees' physical talents, but they are now beholden to the extent of his direction, crisis management skills, and composure. There's no one--at least within the Saints' organization--better equipped to fill the nuances of Sean Payton's void than Brees.
Surely Payton didn't understand the prescience of his words in 2009's America's Game when he called Brees "an extension" of himself. And now it's come full circle.
In fact, we've seen it played out publicly in the recent months. Suddenly Brees has emerged from a public persona carefully crafted, corporatized, executed, and messaged on-point at all times; he's now taken on a much more outspoken, defiant tone in the aftermath of BountyGate. And why? Because it's what his team needs at the moment. It's not so much of a departure from the brand-building norm as it is an adaptation to circumstance.
In April, Brees was one of the first individuals in the Saints organization to come forward and publicly state that the NFL had shared "no meaningful evidence," calling into question the veracity of the bounty accusations. In late June, Brees appeared on David Letterman's show and pointedly declared that the NFL engaged in what "seem[ed] like a smear campaign ... with no true evidence." Brees called the accusations "heinous" and the process "unfair," and called on the NFL to "put forth the facts and the truth." This was a key moment for Brees, as he seized upon the opportunity to deliver his message to a wider demographic. It was an ideal stage to make an impact outside of traditional NFL target audiences, and on a much bigger scale.
|photo courtesy of AP, begging for a GM Wang photoshop|
A month later, Brees was quoted in Peter King's popular MMQB column saying that "nobody trusts [Goodell]," in reference to widespread player sentiment.
Amidst all the other previous hints of a change, this was a marked elevation in rhetoric from Brees--clearly the strongest, most direct, and most controversial--that stood in stark contrast to the carefully-managed, public image he'd branded for years.
It was a purposeful and indicative shift in stature.
Finally, this past Friday, Brees attended Jonathan Vilma's most recent hearing in Federal Court.
When asked by reporters the purpose of his appearance, Brees said "I'm here really on behalf of our entire team, the New Orleans Saints organization to support Jonathan Vilma."
On behalf of the organization. I think that says it all.
CREATING AN IDENTITY
If you've followed Brees closely enough during his tenure in New Orleans, you frequently hear him say that there are always areas for improvement.
Where Brees can specifically improve this year is as a leader and motivator and, in an even greater capacity than before (though hard to fathom), the true face of the organization. He's already in the midst of it.
Brees will be hard pressed to improve on the field by throwing for 5500 yards and 50 TDs. But he can evolve in ways much less quantifiable, though equally influential to desired outcomes. Let's face it, Brees' importance this season resides less in generating his optimal statistical output than it does in his leadership qualities.
If Brees accrues fewer yards, throws a handful more interceptions, and sees his completion percentage dip a bit, it's far from devastating to the Saints' hopes.
What's more important is that Brees leads the team through what will be, at times, a tumultuous road this season. His leadership, in all likelihood, will be tested in ways it hasn't previously been. If that means a drop-off in production, so be it. That was probably going to happen anyway. It's going to take more than just mind-boggling stats and pre-game chants this year; I'm sure that Brees knows this, and it appears he's already taken the reigns on filling Payton's void in his own way.
The chief focus--far from setting records--will be to put the team in the best possible position for a postseason run without Coach Payton. How to best accomplish that? Once the postseason starts, Brees will be at his best. He always has been. His career postseason rating over nine games is 103.9. He's averaged 333.1 yards per game and a 66.8% completion percentage, with 22 TDs and just 4 INTs.
The key is just getting there without the mastermind of the program. I very seriously doubt there's any person better suited to the task than Brees, and that's why obsessing over interim coaches isn't all that important right now. Not only is Brees ideally positioned and prepared for the task, he appears ready to welcome this season's challenge and overcome it.
In an interview with Marshall Faulk prior to the Hall of Fame game, Brees said that "at some point, it's up to the players to take hold of this team, to create an identity."
Who better than Brees to make it happen?