January 1, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-US PRESSWIRE
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS - As he shuttled a fresh group of passengers in his taxi through the tourist district near the French Quarter, Edmond Belizaire expressed the undeniable sentiment of the locals on the topic of beloved New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Pay the man.
For all the twists stemming from the bounty scandal that has dominated the offseason, the other big issue is the standoff between Brees and the Saints ... as the clock ticks toward the start of training camp in late July.
Some people in this hotbed of hospitality are a bit restless about it.
"With all the crap happening here, they should just sign Drew Brees and get the drama over with," Belizaire says. "Jonathan Vilma won't be here this year. Will Smith will be gone for a few games. But with Drew Brees, you've still got a shot at getting to the Super Bowl."
Brees, whose contract expired after last season, was slapped with a franchise tag for $16.3 million on a one-year tender. Unable to strike a long-term deal, he has missed the minicamps and organized team activities. If he doesn't get a multiyear deal by July 16, rules of the collective bargaining agreement dictate he'd have to play the 2012 season under the tender.
But what's the cost? Brees averaged $10 million on his last deal, a six-year pact that was, by peer comparison, a bargain. But after setting the NFL's single-season passing yardage record in 2011 and seeing Peyton Manning's new deal with the Denver Broncos average $19.2 million in the first three years - exceeding the $18 million average for New England Patriots star Tom Brady - Brees isn't out of line expecting a jump exceeding $20 million a year.
Brees' agent, Tom Condon, who also represents Manning, declined to comment. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was unavailable. But there is no shortage of diehards in the Big Easy willing to speak on the matter - like Nathan Washington, a bellman at the Loews Hotel.
"Brees is the glue," Washington said. "He deserves whatever he's asking for. How can you not give it to him? If that's a problem for the Saints, I'll start up a fund and take to the streets. If you're talking about Brees, this community would chip in and pay for it."
Why it came to this is unfathomable, given Brees' trigger role in one of the NFL's most prolific offenses. It is rare a marquee quarterback plays out his contract in this age. Brady, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers re-signed a year before their previous contracts expired. Ben Roethlisberger had two years left when he re-upped.
Yet the Saints' attempts to re-sign Brees last year went nowhere. Brees shut down talks when the 2011 campaign began, and there was virtually no progress before the tag was applied in March.
Typically, fans side with management. Not here. "Brees could be mayor of New Orleans," Belizaire says.
Belizaire still can see Brees rolling up his sleeves in the flood-stricken Lower Ninth Ward, helping with cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
"That's one of the reasons why so many people love him here," Belizaire says.
Naturally, the contract flap fuels only some of the angst. That was evident at Mother's Restaurant, the famed hot spot less than a mile from the Superdome, during the busy lunch hour Thursday.
Denny Amato, a manager at his family's restaurant, says they've had season tickets for 30 years. He fumes about the price of the bounty scandal.
"We've been made scapegoats by the NFL because we're an easy target," he says.
He still believes. Amato expects the Saints, even without suspended coach Sean Payton, will draw on motivational fuel and contend to host Super Bowl XLVII. "After every practice he was on the phone with (backup quarterback) Chase Daniel and (interim coach) Joe Vitt. He's keeping in touch," Amato added.
So even though Brees has been out of sight, he's hardly out of mind.