In the second quarter of Sunday's unintentionally hilarious B movie horror classic in the Superdome, which ended in a 26-19 New Orleans Saints loss to the dreadful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa defensive end Jacquies Smith obliterated Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief. He made contact with Drew Brees' throwing shoulder as the quarterback attempted a pass. Brees' arm and shoulder bent backwards awkwardly and the football flew free. After the play, a wincing Brees rotated and flexed and favored his shoulder; the next pass he threw bounced against the turf to a receiver standing only a few yards away.
It was a moment that quickly gave New Orleans a vision of its football future. News flash: it sucks.
[jump] Throughout 2014, many Saints fans claimed Brees had lost arm strength and could no longer throw the deep ball, but in fact Brees remained one of the NFL's most productive deep ball passers last year. He was also capable of making high-velocity, extremely difficult, accurate passes like this one from the Saints' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Finally, just a few weeks ago in a preseason game against the New England Patriots, Brees silenced the last remaining arm strength conspiracy theorist with this beauty of a bomb to receiver Brandin Cooks:
None of that matters now, because soon after Brees took that hit to his shoulder against Tampa, he stepped up to throw a similar deep pass to Cooks, unleashing the ball without pressure in his face, with Cooks behind the Bucs' secondary and open. In 2014, Brees would have made the throw. Yesterday, he threw a wobbling, fluttering mess of a ball that landed, yards short, in the arms of a Tampa defensive back.
It was a shocking moment that shows us what a loss of arm strength really looks like.
Late in the game, as the Bucs tried to give the game away, the Saints were unable to take it, not least because Brees seemed all but physically incapable of playing the position. He freed another dying duck on a sad flea flicker try, and even one-hopped shorter passes. The loss was a team one - the Saints were awful in every part of the game, including special teams; their defense only looked occasionally passable because of the low quality of the competition, and by comparison to everything else. No, the overall result certainly wasn't just on Brees.
But his stunning and sudden near-inability to play quarterback was bigger than one loss. It's a sign that confirms the sense among some fans that the Saints are accelerating along a path to the end of an era, that this whole Sean Payton/Drew Brees run is coming to a close.
The Saints meant to rebuild their team around their Hall of Fame quarterback. Barring an immediate recovery that seems unlikely, given the talk of lingering shoulder soreness even beyond yesterday's injury, they probably don't have one anymore.
Every other time, since 2006, the Saints have opened a season this badly, they've followed up that bad opening with a quarter-season run back to near-respectability. This year, such a run feels unlikely. 2014's theme of Drew Brees in decline wasn't wrong after all (even though it was). It was just early.
It's bitterly funny how that worked out.