Drew Brees practices Sunday with Saints' first team for first time since Aug. 1 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints QB Drew Brees (9) runs with fellow QB Luke McCown (7) at the end of Training Camp practice Monday at the Saints training complex at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs , West Virginia. Brees was held out of practice while rehabing a strained oblique muscle.

As Luke McCown stood at his locker answering questions about this week’s game against the Carolina Panthers, Drew Brees slipped into the room, maneuvered around a few reporters with their backs turned to him and removed a few items from his adjacent locker.

Brees then ducked out of the room as McCown continued to talk about the opportunity to make his first start as a member of the New Orleans Saints.

The scene said it all: For this week, at least, McCown is the headliner.

Brees — who will not play, the team announced Friday — is now merely a shadow surrounding what happens Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Absolutely (it’s bittersweet),” McCown said. “Drew’s one of my absolute best friends. You’ve been around him long enough to know how competitive he is. He doesn’t give up reps, much less games. To kind of see the air of disappointment on his face, as a friend, I understand that. As a competitor, I understand that.”

The decision to start McCown against the Panthers was made before Friday’s practice. Brees tried to throw some passes in the morning, but he lacked the velocity to get the job done. After he finished throwing, he and coach Sean Payton sat down, and the decision was made.

It seemed like an inevitable outcome. Brees tried his best to get himself to a point where he could play this week after injuring his shoulder Sunday during a second-quarter sack by Tampa Bay defensive end Jacquies Smith, but even all the optimism at team headquarters this week could not heal his bruised rotator cuff.

After a week of trying to change the inevitable, the inevitable decision to start McCown finally was made. For this week, not playing Brees gives this team the best chance to win.

“I just think where he’s at in the rehab and his strength, I think he felt — we all felt — like it would be too early for him playing this weekend,” Payton said.

It’s not clear how close Brees ever was to playing, but it sounds like he still has a ways to go. He said earlier in the week that he was optimistic about his chances, which provided some hope that he would be able to take the field, but Payton said Friday that Brees will remain day-to-day heading into next week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

This will mark the first time that Brees has missed a game with an injury as a member of the Saints. It will be McCown’s first start since Sept. 18, 2011: He completed 6 of 19 passes for 59 yards with four interceptions as Jacksonville lost 32-3 to the New York Jets.

But given that McCown, who completed 68.5 percent of his passes during the preseason, has three years of experience in the system, the Saints are confident he’ll be able to lead the offense against the Panthers.

“He’s been in this offense for a while now, so I think he understands it and has a good feel for it,” offensive lineman Zach Strief said. “We’re fortunate that we have a guy like that. Some teams don’t.”

The reality that this conversation is even taking place is still a bit of a surprise to this team.

Most members of the Saints felt like Sunday would come around and Brees would be under center. It didn’t matter that he didn’t throw any passes during practice or that he was battling back from an injury. Brees always has found a way to play.

Now he won’t be on the field.

The offense won’t change. McCown will run the same plays Brees always runs. But there will be differences on the field.

The receivers will run the same routes, and the plays will be called differently in the huddle, but none of it will be different. Wide receiver Willie Snead pointed the release points between the 6-foot Brees and the 6-3 McCown create one difference for the receivers. McCown also is said to have a stronger arm than Brees.

And, of course, there’s the difference in talent. Brees has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for more than a decade. McCown is a talented backup who hasn’t made a meaningful start in years.

The Saints believe they’ll be fine.

“Luke and Drew are two different people,” Snead said. “They run the offense differently. Luke’s been here for a while; he’s a veteran guy, and he knows how to run this system. We’re going to execute it at a high level.”

They have to be confident. That’s part of the job.

Everyone else will figure out how to feel about the Brees-less Saints on Sunday.