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New Orleans Saints Must Now Prepare for Life Without Drew Brees

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 18, 2021

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to his family and fans after an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in New Orleans. The Buccaneers won 30-20. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The end of an era occurred Sunday during the New Orleans Saints' 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whether or not Drew Brees retires this offseason. 

Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported the NFL's all-time leading passer entered the Mercedes-Benz Superdome knowing it would be the last game he played in New Orleans. The loss signaled the completion of an unparalleled career. But now is not the time to look back. Brees will forever define the franchise and football in the Big Easy. His status as an all-time great is without question. 

At the same time, the Saints just lost in the divisional round with a potentially disastrous salary-cap situation looming. A rebuild seems inevitable after years of success with Brees leading the way. 

As great as the 42-year-old had been throughout his career, his limitations clearly held the Saints back against the Buccaneers. It feels like the right time for him to step away from the game and let someone else lead the franchise. 

For years, many pointed toward the supposed decline of Brees' arm strength. As an undersized pocket passer, his inability to drive the football had potentially hampered the team's success. Yet he continued to churn out productive season after productive season. He had five seasons with over 5,000 passing yards between 2008 to '16 and then smashed NFL accuracy records during the supposed backslide of his career. No one ever did it better when it came to overall production and uncanny accuracy. 

However, everyone watching Sunday knew the 13-time Pro Bowl selection lacked the physical ability to lead the Saints offense. Brees attempted 34 passes and averaged a pitiful 3.9 yards per attempt. For context, the longtime starter previously fell under 4.0 yards per attempt only four times, and not once since 2013. In this particular case, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer struggled when trying to push the ball down the field or outside the numbers.

In fact, the Saints' biggest play of the night came courtesy of Jameis Winston's lone offensive snap—which is a great starting point for the transition to begin. 

New Orleans utilized a fly-sweep, reverse pass out of a Wildcat formation to open up the offense with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Winston to wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith. Yes, you read that correctly.

NFL @NFL

JAMEIS WINSTON. 56-YARD TOUCHDOWN. #ForNOLA #NFLPlayoffs 📺: #TBvsNO on FOX 📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/kJOiprK712 https://t.co/lf8FVvOJib

Head coach Sean Payton's creativity is fun to watch, but the play also served as an indictment of Brees' waning arm talent. 

Winston did not play much this season and often found himself on the bench behind Brees and Taysom Hill. However, last season's league-leading passer showed a renewed dedication to the game with a new workout regimen, underwent offseason LASIK surgery and remained prepared to make a critical throw when called up in a postseason contest. 

Hill is signed through next season, while Winston isn't. That may seem to favor Hill as the heir apparent, but it's not a given. 

First of all, Brees is likely done in New Orleans even if he decides not to retire. The veteran signal-caller told reporters after the contest he plans to take some time before he comes to a final decision. 

Unfortunately, all of the Saints credit cards are maxed out as the '21 new league year looms. According to Over The Cap, the organization is well in the red with plenty of roster decisions to make. If Brees retires or the Saints designate him a post-June 1 cut, the team is still on the hook for $11.2 million. The idea of him coming back with a $36.2 million salary-cap hit simply isn't feasible, especially after his latest effort. The Saints must look at other options. 

As of now, Hill, who wasn't active Sunday due to a knee injury, is under contract next season with a $16.2 million salary-cap hit. The multipurpose threat didn't exactly establish himself as the future long-term starter this season like the Saints hoped. In some ways, Hill limited the offense as well. Sure, he's an excellent athlete, which creates different opportunities from a game-planning perspective, but he also constricted what the unit can do in regards to the passing attack.

Brett Duke/Associated Press

Winston is different in that he's a traditional pocket passer capable of threatening every blade of grass. The 27-year-old signal-caller took the opportunity this season to learn from Brees and improve his career. A catch-22 will emerge in this particular setup because Winston is clearly a more advanced passer compared to Hill and the better option to succeed Brees, but he's not under contract next fall. 

Tom Brady's predecessor in Tampa Bay took his time in free agency and looked for the right situation where he could learn and become a better quarterback. Ultimately, he signed for the bargain-basement price of $1.1 million for one year. Now, Winston has some leverage. 

The Saints must look at both him and Hill as a potential replacement tandem. Winston may not receive too many opportunities to start elsewhere. Besides, a second season (and possibly longer) under Payton's supervision could rekindle his career. The likelihood of a return comes down to what the Saints can afford and what the quarterback is willing to accept. The idea of Hill taking over New Orleans' offense on a full-time basis doesn't inspire much hope. 

April's draft might not hold much in the way of answers since the Saints own the 28th overall pick. The top five quarterbacks could be off the board before New Orleans has an opportunity to select one, though general manager Mickey Loomis could trade up. Or, the organization could make a play for another young quarterback like Sam Darnold if the New York Jets draft a new starter behind center with the second overall pick. 

Quarterback is only the starting point since multiple personnel changes are expected throughout the organization. 

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Tight end Jared Cook, fullback Michael Burton, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Alex Anzalone, cornerback P.J. Williams and safety Marcus Williams are pending free agents like Winston. 

The team should also expect departures to its front office and coaching staff. Director of pro scouting Terry Fontenot is expected to be named the Atlanta Falcons' new general manager, while assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell is in line to become the next Detroit Lions head coach, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The ripple effects continue from there. Sources told the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett that Campbell could bring Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn with him to the Motor City. 

There could lots of turnover next season, starting at the quarterback position. 

The idea of anyone other than Brees receiving offensive play calls from Payton and running the Saints offense doesn't seem natural. But it's time. The Saints should spend all offseason figuring out exactly who should be their starting quarterback to expedite what could be a difficult transitory phase. 

         

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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