Drew Brees faked a handoff inside, rolled to his right and spotted his receiver deep with a step on the defense's coverage. There was a time, not all that long ago, when the Saints almost could take for granted that Brees would throw a touchdown pass in that situation—especially under the cozy Superdome roof.
Brees's deep ball for Brandin Cooks wobbled and fluttered as if it had clipped a tree branch mid-air. Buccaneers safety Chris Conte glided underneath the pass for an interception, helping Tampa Bay toward a rather shocking 26–19 road win.
“It's a touchdown if I just throw it out there,” Brees lamented during his postgame press conference. “It's a touchdown if I throw it out there. I underthrew it. ... It should have been a touchdown.”
In light of his team's latest setback, which dropped the Saints to 0–2 for the third time in four seasons, Brees kept spouting the usual cliches: talk of moving forward, of taking things one game at a time. The recent past, though, is growing more and more difficult for New Orleans to ignore.
This loss was the Saints' sixth straight at the Superdome, recently considered among the toughest road venues in the entire league. And Brees himself remains stuck in the malaise that haunted him, and his offense, last season.
He admitted after Sunday's game that he had dealt with a shoulder injury in 2014. His throwing arm deserted him again against the Bucs, an early hit causing him issues throughout.
“That's the season,” Brees said. “Everybody's dealing with something.”
True, but the bumps and bruises mount a lot faster for a quarterback who has been around as long as Brees has. Now 36 years old and in his 15th season, he is facing the same questions—without nearly as much fanfare—as an aging Peyton Manning has over in Denver. Is he still healthy enough to be effective? How much longer will he continue playing?
Manning has the benefit of a Super Bowl-caliber roster around him, for the most part. The Broncos have issues to sort out along the defensive line and lost tight end Julius Thomas in the off-season, but they still possess a bevy of weapons at wide receiver and running back.
Oh, and most importantly, Denver has a potential top-five defense—a unit that can bail Manning out when he's struggling.
There is no such safety net in New Orleans. The Saints limped to a 7-9 finish last season with the league's 28th-ranked defense, then Brees lost two of his favorite targets (Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills) in summer trades meant to revamp the roster. Not surprisingly, the Saints headed into the 2015 regular season still trying to figure out their exact identity, on both sides of the ball.
With two weeks gone, they're still very much working on it.
But how much time do they need? Brees has just one year left on his $100 million contract, and the Saints could recoup about $20 million by cutting him after this year. Perhaps even more pressing is Sean Payton's status. He brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans, of course, but since then has been suspended for an entire season and now is searching for answers.
The Bucs took a horrid home loss to the Titans in Week 1. Their arrival in the Big Easy should have provided a quick boost to the Saints' sagging morale. Instead ...
“It's very disappointing,” Brees said. “I feel like we had this great home-field advantage we have not taken advantage of. In every one of these games, we've gotten down early and have never come back. We haven't padded a lead in any of these games where we could ignite the crowd. That's how you take advantage of home field and we haven't done that.”
Simply put, the Saints have to figure this all out in a hurry. If not, the task becomes even tougher: asking internally if Brees and Payton still are the right central figures around which the franchise can build.
“He's very competitive, very tough,” said Payton of Brees. “I don't know when you watch him play if you can tell that you're ahead or behind and that's a good trait. He looks at it, maybe a lot like I do, ‘Hey, it's on the next drive.’ He's a great competitor.”
That's all well and good. The Brees-Payton combo would not have found anywhere near the success it has in New Orleans without the unquenchable desire to win. Eventually, there has to be more.
Right now, the Saints cannot find it. Will Brees still be around when they do?