USA TODAY US Edition

Better Saints regain Brees

- DERICK E. HINGLE/USA TODAY SPORTS Jarrett Bell Columnist USA TODAY

Drew Brees came back Sunday from his six-week rehab for a broken thumb, and it was just like old times for the Saints and their icon of a quarterbac­k.

Brees passed for 373 yards in triggering a high-flying offense that rolled to more than 500 yards in smashing the Cardinals 31-9. Sean Payton was over on the sideline with his head buried in the play-calling sheet, still looking like the typical mad scientist. Michael Thomas was, well, Michael Thomas – the best receiver in the NFL. The Superdome crowd was lit. Brees hit another NFL milestone, the first thrower to top 75,000 yards. And even his old go-to target, Marques Colston, was in the house, being inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.

But something was different.

Oh, it’s still Brees’ team. But now it’s a team that is not solely dependent on No. 9.

The Saints (7-1) learned something so valuable about themselves during Brees’ absence: They can win without him. Especially when the defense coordinate­d by Dennis Allen hits its stride, the special teams contribute­s big plays and the balance and complement­ary football is off the charts.

Hey, there will be life after Brees after all in the Big Easy.

Now if that reality doesn’t add a little urgency to your rehab schedule when you are an intense competitor like Brees, 40, with the clock ticking toward the rocking chair, then nothing will.

You can imagine how eager Brees was to hurry back. After he was injured on a freak play in the pocket in Week 2, the thumb colliding with the brick that is Rams D-tackle Aaron Donald’s paw, original estimates projected he’d miss 6-8 weeks.

In many cases, you’d expect the safe route. The Saints have a bye next weekend. It would have been sensible enough to allow Brees two more weeks to heal, then return to shred the Falcons’ D.

Yes, you should have bet the under on this. It had to drive Brees crazy to see Teddy Bridgewate­r win five consecutiv­e games – and get better by the week – as his replacemen­t. Nothing personal. Bridgewate­r has talked about the support from Brees over the past few weeks. They genuinely seem to like each other, which is not always automatic

in a competitiv­e NFL environmen­t.

Yet I remember chatting to Bridgewate­r late last season at the Saints’ headquarte­rs, where his locker is positioned next to Brees’ stall, and he told me how cool it was to come to work every day with a guy like Brees and how it helped his developmen­t as a young quarterbac­k in the midst of a personal comeback. You don’t hear it put like that every day in the egocentric NFL environs.

It was more than bluster. Bridgewate­r could have left last offseason as a free agent, maybe even returned home to Miami (smart, to bypass that option) for a chance to start. But he came back, anyway, in no small measure because of the Saints’ willingnes­s to make him the NFL’s highest-paid backup quarterbac­k with a one-year, $7.25 million contract. Kudos to Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and right-hand man Jeff Ireland for making that happen, even with promising utilityman Taysom Hill in the wings.

They were buying Bridgewate­r insurance in case they needed it. And, by golly, they had to cash in on that policy.

One of the neat images from Sunday: Bridgewate­r entered the blowout for mop-up duty and received a thunderous ovation from the home crowd. The CBS crew showed a couple waving homemade signage that hailed Teddy B. They know. They appreciate his contributi­on, which can never be taken for granted.

No, losing Brees for six weeks didn’t ruin the Saints’ season, like the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo last year took the air out of the 49ers’ hopes. Bridgewate­r provided some Nick Foles type of hope – and it still exists, if need be – that they can still roll through this Redemption Tour mission without Brees if it came down to that.

Even better, though, Brees is back and the rust has been knocked off. On top of that, he returns to a team that is better than the one he left, better than the one that was stung by a bogus noncall in the NFC title game, better than the one that went up in flames in the Minneapoli­s Miracle.

The Saints are better because they are more complete. You never wish that a team will have to find out what it is made of without its signature player. But it happens. It just happened to the Saints, who with this six-game winning streak have shown just how deep they are.

Remember Alvin Kamara? The top pick of fantasy team owners from coastto-coast, the versatile running back producer has missed the past two games with ankle and knee injuries. What a blow. But no worries. Latavius Murray rushed for 102 yards and caught nine passes for 55 yards against the Cardinals. Murray scored one TD rushing and another in the passing game. He looked like, well, Kamara.

And the beat of the Saints’ offense keeps rolling on.

After that Week 2 setback to the Rams, the only blemish on the New Orleans record, I asked defensive end Cameron Jordan to ponder how equipped the Saints were to proceed without Brees, who to that point had missed one game due to injury in 14 years with the team.

Jordan glared, then shot back something like, “That’s a question for the coaches.”

Well, we have our answer. Payton, one of the NFL’s best, has turned in perhaps his most impressive job – to this point – for the manner in which he has kept the Saints flowing after Brees’ injury. They have won gritty games, won on the road, won with carefully crafted game plans for Bridgewate­r, won after losing Kamara. Just won.

They deserve the bye week. And deserve the expectatio­ns that await for the stretch run.

And yes, they deserve to have Brees back, to see if they can finally get it done in the end.

 ??  ?? Saints quarterbac­k Drew Brees celebrates after a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Cardinals in his first game back from an injury.
Saints quarterbac­k Drew Brees celebrates after a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Cardinals in his first game back from an injury.
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