Saving grace

This column appears in the January 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Drew Brees places his foot on the end zone line, looks out across the dark, cavernous practice field in front of him and shivers at the unfamiliar feeling in his stomach.

Just 18 hours earlier, the Saints were upset at home by the hapless Bucs. As a result, instead
of possibly getting today off, Brees and his
teammates line up shoulder-to-shoulder for the
one thing they dread most:
Monday-morning wind sprints -- in this case, 100-yard striders, 10 of them, at
a pace between a jog and a sprint. Brees usually owns this drill; after
crossing the line first (always), he'll bolt an extra 10 yards, tap the next
downfield marker with his foot and sprint back to the start, long before
most of the other Saints arrive. But right now, New Orleans' record-breaking
QB is tired and sore, and the field in front of him seems to stretch out
endlessly to the horizon.

As the players quietly ready themselves, the coaching staff strolls onto the
field. On some level, this is the most important moment of the Saints'
season. How will a team that was once chasing
perfection respond to its
first taste of adversity, with the playoffs looming? Whatever the answer is,
it will come from the captain of the offense. Many people think Brees saved
New Orleans when he signed here in 2006. Brees insists it's the other way
around, and he sees every game as his chance to return the favor.

A whistle cracks the cold silence.

The mass of bodies pushes forward, together, off the line. Brees moves with
them, slowly.

Let's finally call Drew Brees exactly what he is: one of the NFL's all-time
great passers. In 2009, he became the second player in league history (after
Peyton Manning) to throw for 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He
also set the NFL record for completion percentage (70.6%), while finishing
with a league-best 109.6 QB rating. But nothing
is more impressive than the way Brees has
transformed the Aints. This was a franchise with one playoff
win in its first 39 seasons, a team that had turned the brown paper bag into
a fan fashion statement. Now the top-seeded Saints are the NFL's most
explosive and entertaining team.