Brees leads Saints' revival

NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- They are two of the most significant quarterbacks to wear the fleur-de-lis, both of them representing in their own way the serial futility of the New Orleans Saints.

One was the martyr to the early years - always undersupported, basically an organ donor to a franchise. The other was the perfect match in origin and temperament, but his Cajun spark never quite caught in the postseason.


Archie Manning and Bobby Hebert are bearing happy witness to a new New Orleans football outlook. It is as if the wind and water of Hurricane Katrina swept away the records and the hollow expectations of the past. In their place is a football team that represents tangible hope where so much is needed - and a quarterback who stands as a bringer of new beginnings, starting with tonight's NFC divisional playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

As New Orleans measures Drew Brees for a different kind of Saint-hood, his predecessors stand back and nod approvingly.


"Drew is a good guy," said Manning, the patriarch of a quarterbacking clan who still lives and works in post-Katrina New Orleans. "He is going to contribute no matter what city he is in. But here, there's so much to do."

Hebert gushes: "With his consistency, he's the closest thing we have to Joe Montana now - without having accomplished what Joe Montana has. He gets rid of the ball quick, he has a good arm, and he always knows where the ball is going."

The Saints are the most compelling story left in the playoffs, the NFC's No. 2 seed hosting Philadelphia tonight in the born-again Superdome. Leading the let's-win-one-for-the-rebuilders saga is the 6-foot quarterback who never fails to grasp the larger significance.

"You look back to six months ago, who would have ever thought we'd be sitting here with a first-round bye, about to play a home playoff game?" said Brees, who arrived as a free agent with the displaced Saints coming off a 3-13 2005 season. "It has been a team effort, a city effort, a fan effort. Everybody's been involved with our success.

"I appreciate it now. And the more I can look back on it, the more I'll be able to truly understand what we're a part of around here."

Brees finished the regular season as the NFL's leader in passing yardage (4,418) with a fancy touchdown-to-interception ratio (26-11) and rock-solid rating (96.2, third in the league). There are exciting young playmakers throughout the Saints' offense - such as running back Reggie Bush and receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson - but Brees, who turns 28 Monday, is the roux in this gumbo. He is what binds it all.

Along with his high civic profile - he took out an ad in the city's daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, promising to be a part of the rebuilding effort - Brees is a steadying factor on a team feeling out its limits.

"It's been incredible, everything he's done from the time he stepped on the field," Bush said of Brees. "He has been nothing but hard work. He has been a big help to me just watching him and seeing how he has done it - his daily routine, the way he works, the way he studies, the way he carries himself in games. Helped me understand what it takes to be a pro and be a winner."


"I didn't expect him to be such a complete quarterback, whether it's the leadership or the decision-making," said Jon Stinchcomb, a Saints offensive lineman who played at Georgia. "Until you're a part of it you really don't understand all the things he brings to the table."

Brees did not arrive as a complete unknown. A four-year starter in San Diego, he made the Pro Bowl in 2004 and had carved out a nice reputation as a smart, efficient passer. But then he wrecked his throwing shoulder in the last game of 2005 and cast his fate to the free-agent market as the Chargers made room for young Philip Rivers.

Here is the symbiotic part of the relationship between Brees and New Orleans. As much as he has contributed to the spirit of the city and the energy of the franchise, the city's affection in return has been downright healing.

"A shoulder injury of that magnitude to a throwing shoulder is not a good thing," Brees said. "There was no telling what was going to happen - they had that confidence in me and that belief in me. I tried to tell them, of course, that I'm going to come back, I'm going to be fine, I'm going to help lead this team. The reason I'm here is that they had as much confidence in me as I did."

In rookie coach Sean Payton, Brees has found a seemingly perfect architect for his tastes. Their strengths have complemented each other all season, as Brees piled up eight 300-yard passing games. It is stunning what can happen when a quarterback and his coach are in sync.

"The key thing here is the chemistry between he and Sean Payton," Manning said. "Drew is so smart, you can put a lot on him. And he has a head coach who calls his own plays - and Sean is an excellent play-caller."


"I think Coach Payton is as great as I ever could have imagined. I feel he has really re-energized my career. I see our future being a great one," Brees said.

As for the present, these Saints have one more duty to perform before cleanly breaking with their old selves. They tote a 1-5 postseason record into tonight.

Granted a good part of the viewership will be urging them on against the Eagles - "I think everybody will be cheering for the 'Who Dat' Nation, unless you're from Philadelphia," said Hebert, who is a part of sports talk radio in New Orleans. He plans to move back there full time from Atlanta this summer. Hebert, incidentally, was 0-3 in the postseason for the Saints.

But can the Saints and their hot-handed quarterback really make a run to the Super Bowl, and keep their feel-good story afloat?

"I think this is the best chance they've ever had," said Manning, who never reached the playoffs with New Orleans.

"We've already beaten a lot of odds," Brees said. "We might as well keep beating them."