It's here. In less than 24 hours from now, the New Orleans Saints will open their 2017 regular season at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis against the NFC Central opponent Minnesota Vikings; in a game that many observers of the Saints football franchise feel is also the first game of a potential "make or break" season in New Orleans for the people that run the show behinds the scenes, namely head coach Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.
However, for those who don't believe that the Saints are under any additional pressure to win more games this year after finishing the past 3 years with 3 straight losing seasons and missing the NFL Playoffs in all 3 of those years (namely Payton and Loomis), here's what tomorrow night's game definitely is going to be:
The Beginning of the Final Years of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era in New Orleans.
For the past 11 years, the Saints have willed us, thrilled us, and nearly killed us.
The Saints have "willed" us (to come back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina), "thrilled" us (won Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010), and now have damn near "killed" us (3 straight 7-9 seasons).
But along the way, it's been one helluva fun ride as the Saints -- who may not have always been successful in the win-loss column or up on the final scoreboard -- have always kept us highly and very thoroughly entertained.
And still yet all things must eventually come to an end, and so to will the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era in NOLA.
While Payton's future with the team at the moment appears to be more concrete (Payton signed an extension that keeps him on as the Saints head coach through the year 2020, though that could always change) than some might believe, Brees' future isn't as certain.
And after this morning's report by ESPN Insider Adam Schefter via beat writer Mike Triplett a short while ago, that future might even seem to be a bit more uncertain than it was before.
Schefter revealed that as Brees heads into the final year on his contract, the Saints lack the ability to lock him into New Orleans with a tag. That's because that Schefter reports that Brees' contract contains a little-known, rarely-used clauses that prohibit the Saints from using their franchise tag on Brees, league sources told ESPN.
Schefter says that doesn't mean Brees won't eventually re-sign with New Orleans, a city he loves and always will be connected to. But New Orleans lacks the flexibility to block him from leaving.
However, if you're a Saints fan, you can also believe this:
Drew Brees will NOT leave the Saints.
He will finish out his career in New Orleans --- but just not for any "hometown discount" or a break on the price.
Drew Brees knows that he has just enough prime playing years left in his proverbial gas tank, to earn one more final "big pay day".
And while he technically will now be free to leave and sign with any other team after this upcoming 2017 season over, the possibility that he would actually even consider leaving is a remote one at best.
Although Brees is 38 and turns 39 in January, he shows no blatantly visible signs of "slowing down"; and it's probably fair to say that he maybe still has anywhere from 2 to 4 "good" seasons left in him.
The problem for the Saints with regards to re-signing Brees is that they cannot be certain how much longer Brees has left before the "gas in his tank" runs out.
As we have seen in the past with famous NFL QB's such as Joe Namath, Kenny "The Snake" Stabler, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning (to name a few), we see time after time over the years where an NFL QB will "hang on too long" at the very tail-end of their long NFL careers.
One would have to assume that Brees won't want to be remembered for being one of those players that didn't know when to walk away when it was time to do so.
Which is exactly why that starting tomorrow night -- regardless of what happens between the organization and Brees in contract negotiations in the off-season -- that the beginning of the Final Years of the Payton-Brees Era will be upon us.
Despite all of the talk about next year, Brees told Triplett and other members of the media a few weeks back that he wasn't focused on his contract after this season; but only focused on Monday Night in Minneapolis, and opening the upcoming 2017 NFL season against the Vikings.
"Right now [no discussions are taking place]. I don't expect them to. I don't really desire them to," Brees said. "I just want to play football and help this team win."
Last year, Brees and the Saints worked out a one-year, $24.25 million extension just a few days before the 2016 regular-season opener so that he wouldn't become an unrestricted free agent after that season.
Actually, he could even continue to do that (just keep signing 1-year deals every year) as former QB Brett Favre famously did for Minnesota in 2009 through 2011, before he finally decided to retire for good at age 42.
But it doesn't really seem that Brees wants the aggravation of having to deal with that sort of thing every off-season; which is why I fully expect the team and Brees work something out.
Brees is coming off a strong 2016 campaign in which he passed for 5,208 yards (along with 37 TD passes) – the 2nd most yards ever in what is now his illustrious 16-year NFL career.
And after the godawful performances of the Saints back-up QB's during the recently-completed Pre-Season, the Saints organization would be TOTALLY INSANE if they don't pay Brees whatever he wants, to stay in New Orleans to finish out his future Hall of Fame career.
But nevertheless at this point, it's become obvious that the Saints will likely draft a top-rated college QB in next year's 2018 NFL Draft to become Brees' eventual replacement in 2-3 years from now.
And with no one "stand out" QB expected to be available for the Saints in the next few years of NFL Free-Agency like Brees was for them in 2006, the NFL Draft is almost guaranteed to be where Saints fans will get there "new" QB after Drew Brees from.
Which is exactly Saints fans will want to start paying attention to names like Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) during this year's college football season, that just played its 2nd week of games last night.
But starting tomorrow night, it will also be the beginning of something that to be quite honest, is also something that we all actually could do completely without.
It will be a slow and painful beginning, for the final years of a time that we will all look back upon for the rest of our remaining lifetimes with a great sense of appreciation.
A time when Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the New Orleans Saints made us realize just why we love the sport of Pro Football and the team that has always represented us, since we were old enough to remember...........