It feels too soon to consider the end.
Eighteen losses to date over the past two seasons feels a little bit like it’s temporary. Look close enough, and you can talk your way into seeing an escape path from perdition. It looks like it’s there, waiting to lead the Saints back to glory and success.
The escape route could also be a mirage. Following that path could send New Orleans further into the night and cause the Saints to get further lost and further confused.
But a decision has to be made.
This is a conversation no one wants to have. The 2015 season is still going. Even with the season already in ruin, the focus should be on the Jacksonville Jaguars and then the Atlanta Falcons.
But with Drew Brees fighting a foot injury that could threaten his ability to play in those games, there’s little reason to keep the seal on this conversation.
The Saints are a few weeks away from having to discuss what the future holds for their franchise quarterback.
Should he be back next season? Does he deserve an extension? Can they win with him?
These are all questions that need to be asked and answered. Right now, there are no easy decisions. There are only unmapped paths, and the team is navigating without GPS.
It’s easy to say Brees should be back and the team should add a few years to his contract to mitigate his crippling $30 million cap figure next season.
There’s no question Brees is still one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. His presence alone means that success is never far off.
For that reason, the most likely outcome is New Orleans extends Brees, spreads out his money over a few years, and create a situation that is more manageable. If Brees remains the quarterback of this team, this move will likely be necessary, since the Saints are already projected to be over the salary cap before even fully filling out the roster.
Flexibility has to be created in one manner or another, and while there is some fat to trim, adding years to Brees’ contract would be an easy way to create breathing room — assuming he is amicable to the idea. That would then mean Brees’ salary would balloon in the final years of his deal, when he’s likely to be pushing 40.
Such an outcome will not likely appease those who crave a more stable, flexible financial future for this organization, but kicking the can might be the only way to retain Brees.
If that move is made, it means the Saints will likely have another offseason like the last one: with one eye on the future and another on how to immediately improve. It’s impossible, and senseless, to try to go into a full-blown rebuild with a quarterback on the roster who is capable of winning and is being paid more than an average of $20 million per season.
Bluntly put, it would be stupid to invest that kind of money and then squander the last few good years of Brees’ career.
So that would mean the team would continue to try to fill the roster with young, impactful players acquired through the draft, while also chasing high-priced veteran free agents, who, theoretically, are capable of helping this team win right now.
That approach worked in some ways for New Orleans this season. The Saints acquired several young players who should be core players into the future, including offensive lineman Andrus Peat, linebacker Stephone Anthony, cornerback Delvin Breaux, wide receiver Willie Snead and others, but developing those players was a secondary focus of the season.
If this team were in a true rebuild, wide receiver Brandon Coleman and cornerback Damian Swann might have received more snaps instead of pricier veterans brought in or retained during the offseason, such as Marques Colston and Brandon Browner.
The money used to sign C.J. Spiller might have been used to help better stock the middle class of the roster, and the Saints would have found a place on the offensive line for Peat earlier in the season.
Continuing down this road would not preclude New Orleans from competing next season. It could plug the holes at guard and defensive tackle, sprinkle in some more talent on defense, and maybe add a wide receiver and compete for a playoff spot.
That outcome isn’t completely out of reach and isn’t unfathomable. Going down this road is safer and quite possibly the most logical way to go about things. Not moving forward with Brees would mean extreme uncertainty.
Teams without a quarterback usually spent a lot of time searching for one and can easily descend into a decade of darkness while searching. Ask the Cleveland Browns how that’s working out, or how the Oakland Raiders felt before pulling Derek Carr out of the draft.
It’s ugly, and if Garrett Grayson isn’t the future of the position, that same fate could fall on New Orleans if it decides to move forward without Brees for one reason or another.
So if he’s part of this team’s future designs, the Saints need to find out if he’s willing to stick around and spend the final years of his career here while the front office tries to figure out how to put a winning roster around him. There’s also the possibility this team could be looking for a new coach, which could and should factor into Brees’ decision.
If he doesn’t want to be here, New Orleans needs to find a way to deal him, which would save $20 million against the salary cap and bring back some draft picks, and figure out a way to get down the path as quickly as possible.
For some teams, they clear it in a couple of years. For others, it can take a decade.
One thing is for sure, it can get dark quickly out there.