JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – For Drew Brees, training camp is a breeze – compared to this time last year, at least.
There’s no predetermined limit on how many throws he gets per day, no uncertainty about the health of his throwing arm, no worrying whether the Saints are any good.
“Offensively, I feel so much farther along now than last year,” Brees said.
“It’s incredible, I think, the change.”
If that’s truly the case, defenses could be in trouble, because Brees led the league in passing last season.
A year ago, Brees was a very determined and very doubted man. The San Diego Chargers let him become a free agent after a severe shoulder injury during the last game of the 2005 season. The Miami Dolphins refused to outbid the Saints for Brees’ services, believing Daunte Culpepper and his surgically repaired knee was less of a risk.
Brees entered 2006 training camp with a six-year contract in which only the first year was guaranteed. He knew he’d have to perform well right away.
After completing 356 of 554 passes (64.3 percent) for 4,418 yards and 26 TDs, leading the Saints to a 10-6 regular season record and the franchise’s first NFC championship game appearance, Brees was voted an AP All-Pro and the NFC starter in the Pro Bowl. All the while, he was thrusting himself into community service projects in hurricane-battered New Orleans, and in doing so became co-recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Looking back, even Brees seemed a little mystified by how his circumstances improved so much so fast last season.
“Last year, I think the thoughts running through my head were just hoping that gradually, each day, I’d bee able to throw the ball a little bit better, throw it a little bit further,” Brees recalled.
“Last year I had a pitch count at this time, so this afternoon’s practice, last year, I wouldn’t be throwing, whereas this year I’ll throw as many times as I want. So that feels a lot better.
“I can really focus now on some of the little things. I’ve set goals for myself for this camp.”
There’s things I want to work on, so now I can focus on those things as opposed to just trying to be able to throw again.”
Brees wouldn’t specify his new goals for training camp, but it’s clear he wants to work on building relationships with some new receivers. He knows what he has in two of his top targets, second-year receiver Marques Colston and fourth-year wideout Devery Henderson. Two new receivers who are almost certain to contribute are free agent veteran David Patten and first-round pick Robert Meachem.
There’s also newly acquired tight end Eric Johnson, once a leading pass catcher in San Francisco before injuries limited him the past couple seasons.
Also back are off-and-on starting receiver Terrance Copper, as well as reserves Jamal Jones and Lance Moore.
“Those guys are really competing. We’re going to be in a situation where throughout the season we’re going to need every one of those guys, so at this point, I’m not worried about who’s going to start,” Brees said. “I’m just trying to help these guys get better. They’re trying to help me get better, and I feel like as a unit we can really be a special group.”
Brees thrives on being doubted. Last season, he drew a lot of motivation from parallel rebuilding-themed subplots. He was rebuilding his arm. The Saints were rebuilding their roster after a 3-13 season. New Orleans was literally rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.
Brees bought and renovated an old house in the heart of New Orleans’ uptown neighborhood and immersed himself in the city’s cultural landscape, raving about charbroiled oysters, shaved ice and syrup “sno-ball” stands, the beauty of the historic architecture and the warmth of his new neighbors. He has hosted charity events, and this past summer paid for college students in his old fraternity to visit New Orleans, and help build Habitat for Humanity homes in a neighborhood that flooded badly during Katrina.
New Orleans will be rebuilding for years, but life has returned nearly to normal in many parts of town. Beloved institutions, restaurants, museums, music clubs and the like have reopened splendidly in the last year or so.
And the Saints are now a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, while Brees says his arm feels as strong as ever.
So what will make this season special? What will motivate him this time?
“Once you taste that level of success, I think human nature is to just relax,” Brees said. “But our case? We’re trying to take this thing to the next level.
“We fell a game short of our ultimate goal last year. Our ultimate goal was not to make it to the NFC championship, it was to win a Super Bowl. … And I think the attitude really, now, should be: expect more.
“That’s for our team. That’s for all of New Orleans. Expect more. We’re where we are because we worked extremely hard to get here, but there’s still another level we can get to – so let’s get there.”