As with the Oakland Raiders the week before, the New Orleans Saints did not win Sunday’s game against the New York Giants even though they really, really should have. Odell Beckham Jr. made eight catches but dropped the one that mattered; the eternally hemorrhaging Saints defense somehow managed to give up zero touchdowns; the stars were in position, etc. Of course, all of this clashed against the natural order of things, and cosmic self-correction came in the form of Victor Cruz Shang Tsung–ing Beckham’s powers for a ridiculous catch to set up kicker Josh Brown’s game-winning cheapie. However, New Orleans did win in another, less important sense. Drew Brees passed Dan Marino, the dude who got carjacked while test-driving a Cadillac CTS in Bad Boys II, on the all-time passing yardage list with 61,589 yards after Sunday’s loss! Yay!
Brees lighting record books on fire and leapfrogging people on lists for stuff isn’t exactly new or unfamiliar. In fact, it’s exactly as familiar as the Saints allowing historic outings to their opponents at a seemingly historic rate: Sunday’s win marked the Giants’ first 2–0 start since 2009. In last November’s matchup with the Giants, Brees had 39 completions on 50 attempts (gasp) for 505 yards (gasp) and seven touchdowns (fucking GASP), tying the single-game record. But all of that history-making was somewhat dampened by the fact that the Saints allowed 49 points and relied on a 50-yard field goal from Kai Forbath in the final minute to seal a 52–49 victory. In another gunslinging performance, Brees continued marking up the history books by altering four different records in a 35–27 loss to the Detroit Lions that December. Against the Raiders last week, Brees connected with Brandin Cooks, who sauteed corner Sean Smith in single coverage for a 98-yard touchdown, which was the longest in franchise history. But Jack Del Rio ruined it by going for two with under a minute left to play, and New Orleans lost, 35–34.
It wasn’t always like this. These team records, set or matched, used to have wins attached to them. The Saints beat the breaks off the Atlanta Falcons 45–16 in 2011 when Brees threw for 307 yards (his 12th 300-yard game that season, a record) bringing his total that year to 5,087 (beating out Marino’s 17-year-old record), which made him the first quarterback in NFL history to break 5,000 yards twice (another record).
But that might as well have been 5,000 years ago. They still had Jimmy Graham back then. And now that Graham has moved on to not be targeted by Russell Wilson in Seattle, the Saints are left with Coby Fleener, who incidentally caught the 8-yard pass that pushed Brees over Marino and into the no. 3 spot on the all-time passing yards list. And, same as with the career days against the Giants in November, the Lions in December, and the Raiders last week, this new record is little more than a pretty, shiny distraction from the Saints’ big, red, blinking problems.
An immediate concern is that, in a pass-happy offense that traditionally leans on dependable tight ends (this would be Graham), the Saints don’t have a dependable tight end to lean on. Brees and Fleener are barely speaking the same language — that 8-yard link was one of two receptions on eight targets for Fleener, culminating in 29 yards on the day. The more troubling and overarching issue is at once easy and difficult to explain. It’s difficult because, while I’d like nothing more than to have a positive outlook on where things go from here, for the foreseeable future every good feeling we (I) get from watching the Saints will just be lesser versions of things we’ve (I’ve) already experienced. Brees will continue to clamber up all-time lists while the Saints lose games, underpinning a throbbing nostalgia for a onetime championship team that stands no earthly chance of repeating that feat in the present or the near future. That is a reality that’s easy to explain, and a major part of the Saints’ troubling problem: New Orleans has been incredibly bad at business for the last few seasons. ESPN’s Mike Triplet has a rundown of all the gory front-office details, but the most glaring and scathing one is that 25 percent of this year’s cap space is being spent on players who don’t even play for the team. That’s owing partly to the financial contortions the Saints have forced themselves into beneath the cap, with the apparent goal of sneaking back into the playoffs to suffer another wild-card loss, or middle for the rest of eternity. The recently released C.J. Spiller is the latest addition to the Saints’ Island of Misfit Toys, which also includes players like Junior Galette, Keenan Lewis, and Brandon Browner. Fleener is shaping up to be their latest free-agent bust.
The bigger obstacle to progress, or biggest I should say, is the one that remains the elephant in the room: Drew Brees, who’s 37 years old (and still a great quarterback who will probably do great elsewhere!) and has a comically large contract sharking up cap space that could go toward overhauling a team that desperately needs a complete overhaul. I mean, I guess Tom Brady has the same kind of deal, but the Patriots have been, you know, winning stuff. It’s been past time for a full-scale restructuring going on two seasons now, and each time the Saints finish with sevenish wins and miss the playoffs, the discussion does get renewed. But each time we remember that Brees won us a Super Bowl. And we unfurl the list of gaudy records he broke that year. And we decide the breakup sex was just good enough to justify sticking out an increasingly fruitless and expensive relationship just a little bit longer.
The Saints can choose to void Brees’s five-year extension after 2017, but even if (prayerfully when) that happens, the Saints will still have to eat an $18 million cap hit in amortized Brees money alone, so the rebuilding can’t even start in earnest until 2019. Which, as it happens, would be 10 seasons after that wantaway quarterback from the San Diego Chargers brought New Orleans home a trophy.
God really does have the best sense of humor.