It’s a happy time in the Brees household. After leading New Orleans to a Super Bowl win in 2009, the most important player in Saints history has re-upped with the team for five years and $100 million. That $100 million includes a record $60 million in guaranteed money. For a little while now, the Saints’ had fronted as though they might not give Brees the $20 million per year that he was looking for, which led to conversations in which the Saints suggested they would sign him to a franchise tender worth about $16 million, and Brees promised that he would not be playing for the Saints in 2012 if they did. But cooler heads prevailed, and Drew Brees has his career-sealing contract, and New Orleans retains a quarterback coming off two of the most productive seasons in NFL history.
Meanwhile, Drew Brees’ counterpart on defense, Jonathan Vilma — who played a nearly-as-integral role in leading the Saints to a Super Bowl — will spend the 2012 season couch-bound, watching Drew Brees play quarterback on TV. Vilma took the fall for the Saints’ bounty scandal, along with coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and a few other players. Of course, assuming the league’s allegations are correct, it was Jonathan Vilma who tried to financially incentivize his teammates to injure opposing players. But excesses aside, hitting — and, to a certain extent, injuring — the opposing teams’ players is a part of Vilma’s job. Intrinsically, there’s no difference between the way Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma play their respective positions: intelligently, ruthlessly, and as proud representatives of an organization that (allegedly) sanctioned dirty play. Brees, though, is lucky enough to have the most symbolically clean job in the game.
Drew Brees is a hero of football, and one of the league’s most popular players, and the main difference between him and the heel Jonathan Vilma is that they play different positions. Otherwise, they are parts of the same supposedly corrupt organization, and they occupied parallel leadership roles. For starters, to consider that Drew Brees was unaware of the “bounty program,” whatever that program may have been, is to believe that Brees had an enormous blindspot in his relationship with at least half of the players on his team. The main reason that it’s Brees with the opportunity to make $100 million in the next five years while remaining a lionized and admired athlete is that he plays quarterback, and for quarterbacks, taking a heel turn solely due to football conduct is almost impossible as long as they play well. Look at recent passer-villains: Ben Roethlisberger faced rape allegations; Brett Favre faced allegations of sexual harassment and was generally a hugely irritating clown; Michael Vick fought dogs.
On the field, the quarterback has the role of conquering hero, moving his team forward and performing the generous act of setting up his teammates for success. Watching football apart from the biases of fandom, it’s impossible to hate a great quarterback, because within the structure of the game, he naturally occupies a virtuous role. Defense is the complete opposite, for all the same reasons: humans like progress, and defenders exist to stymie progress. It’s no coincidence that a 35-31 game is usually thought of as great and a 9-6 game is thought of as terrible, no matter what the quality of play actually was, and it’s the rare defensive player who has fans outside of football geeks and the people who root for his own team. Meanwhile, the moments when great quarterbacks prove they’re as win-at-all-costs as any other football player — Tom Brady screaming at his offensive coordinator; Peyton Manning being an incessant pain the ass; or, for a vintage example, Terry Bradshaw taking steroids—are generally outshone by their records of inherently magnanimous performaces.
Drew Brees deserves this contract; he has unquestionably earned it, and the idea that the Saints might have possibly not given it to him was incomprehensible, their delay in doing so bizarre. But it’s important to remember, as Brees takes the field next season, that the difference between him and Vilma is mainly one of circumstance.