Overcoming the loss of Brees doesn’t fall exclusively on Teddy Bridgewater
Drew Brees’ thumb injury apparently requires surgery that will sideline him for roughly six weeks.
Unless a second opinion produces a drastically different diagnosis than the first, Teddy Bridgewater will be the New Orleans Saints starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.
But that doesn’t mean Bridgewater is solely responsible for mitigating the loss, though he will be primarily responsible.
It doesn’t mean the difference in performance between Brees – who has passed for more yards than any other quarterback in NFL history (nearly 75,000) – and Bridgewater – who has passed for 283 yards in the last three-plus seasons – necessarily equates to the drop-off in the Saints performance from what it was with Brees to what it will be without him.
Maybe Brees’ absence will be disastrous to the Saints; maybe it will be manageable.
Only time will tell.
But the Saints’ success with Brees at quarterback for the last 13 seasons was a team effort and so will their success or failure without him be a team effort.
It was coincidental that merely a few hours before Brees suffered his injury against the Los Angeles Rams that news broke of the Saints agreeing to a five-year contract extension with head coach Sean Payton.
Payton arrived in 2006 and his first major move was to bring in Brees as a free agent to run his offense. The success that those two have orchestrated has made Payton the second-longest tenured coach in NFL.
He identified Bridgewater as the person he wanted in case the unfortunate situation that has arrived ever did arrive. So he and general manager Mickey Loomis made a trade with the New York Jets 13 months ago to bring in Bridgewater, who was in the final year of his contract.
Payton got nervous during the off-season when Bridgewater tested free agency, then breathed a sigh of relief when Bridgewater chose to re-sign with New Orleans as insurance in case Brees got injured and perhaps as the successor to the 40-year-old Brees, whose contract expires after this season.
Payton is a smart head coach but his primary expertise is offense and quarterback play. He’s not going to stick Bridgewater into the lineup and say, “Go be Drew.”
The Saints were limited in how they could adjust to Brees’ absence in the 27-9 loss to the Rams. They were two series into the game and had to roll with the game plan for Brees against the defending NFC champions.
It didn’t go well.
Bridgewater completed 17 of 30 for 165 yards. The loss of starting left guard Andrus Peat to a leg injury made things harder for the offense and New Orleans rushed for a mere 57 yards.
But now Payton and the Saints have time – not a lot, but some – to prepare for Brees’ absence going forward. Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi have time to tailor the game plan for Seattle next Sunday to what Bridgewater is best at and most comfortable with.
Brees isn’t the only elite playmaker on this offense. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are among the best at their positions and their ability to turn simple plays into significant plays can make Bridgewater’s job easier.
Unfortunately for the Saints, the Seahawks and subsequent opponents will realize that Kamara and Thomas become even more critical to the offense’s success in Brees’ absence and they will defend them accordingly.
Of course the offensive line becomes even more important – with or without Peat – in providing holes for Kamara and Latavius Murray against more run-conscious defenses and protecting Bridgewater against salivating pass rushers.
The Saints do have another option at quarterback in Taysom Hill, though the plan all along has been for Bridgewater to be the primary backup to Brees and preferred fill-in if that became necessary.
Hill’s versatility made him better suited to being an occasional change of pace to Brees, someone who could bring a different dimension to the quarterback position by orchestrating occasional run-pass options while also contributing as a running back, wide receiver, tight end and special teamer.
That shouldn’t change with Brees’ injury. Hill can fulfill that same role behind Bridgewater, though a change of pace might be needed more frequently when the offense inevitably stagnates under Bridgewater.
Last season the Saints’ 13 regular-season victories came by an average score of 34-20. If New Orleans is going to be successful without Brees the wins might have to come by scores more like 20-17 or even lower.
That doesn’t mean Payton abandons the fast-paced offense that has been the key to this team’s success under him. But it does mean a modification to the realities of a Brees-less team is in order.
The points are going to be harder to come by without Brees, so the defense is going to have to reduce the number of points it allows if the Saints are going to win.
Coordinator Dennis Allen and a unit that has been solid and occasionally very good the last two seasons have to do their part.
Takeaways become even more important. If the defense can shorten the distance that Bridgewater and the offense have to drive to a touchdown or a Wil Lutz field goal, the better the chances of victory.
Complementary football requires all three units working together to help one another be successful. The Saints have a rare weapon in that regard in punter Thomas Morstead, whose consistently long, high and precisely placed kicks enable New Orleans to frequently win the field-position battle. His ability to maintain or enhance that advantage could be critical.
Additionally the coverage units and dynamic rookie return specialist Deonte Harris and his blockers can contribute to a much-needed field-position edge.
All of these coaches, players and factors can combine to make Bridgewater’s task less daunting.
The margin for error is small and Bridgewater will have to make good decisions and accurate throws, avoid critical mistakes and play as he played in his Pro Bowl season (2015) before a severe knee injury changed the direction of his career.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that replacing Brees falls exclusively on Bridgewater. But it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that he has by far the greatest responsibility in the Saints overcoming this loss.
When Brees does return – probably somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving – the Saints will have a pretty good idea of whether playoff hopes are still realistic.
Whether they continue to play like a playoff team under Bridgewater, who becomes a free agent again after this season, will also shed light on the future of this team.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…