TAMPA — Your initial thought should be a somber one.
Drew Brees will apparently need surgery on his thumb, and will likely miss at least six games. This is awful. Awful for Brees, awful for the Saints, awful for fans who appreciate a well-played NFL game.
Brees is artistry in a helmet. He has thrown more completions for more yards than anyone who has played the game. He has also beaten the Buccaneers more times than any quarterback in history.
And that’s where this gets tricky.
If you are outwardly saddened by a competitor’s misfortune, are you allowed to have some selfish thoughts to yourself?
Because, parochial as it sounds, this could be a game-changer.
The balance of power has not completely shifted in the NFC South, but it is less defined than it was 48 hours ago. The Saints were thought by many to be a Super Bowl contender, and were certainly a chic pick to win a third consecutive division title.
The Brees injury does not mean that’s no longer possible, but it’s definitely less likely. If the initial reports coming out of New Orleans of a torn ligament in his thumb are accurate, the Saints will be without their unquestioned ringleader until the second half of the season.
That’s nearly an inconceivable thought in New Orleans. The last time a starting quarterback other than Brees won a game in a Saints uniform was nearly 14 years ago.
The offense may be drawn up by coach Sean Payton, but it’s owned by Brees. He controls it, he directs it, he makes it work more smoothly than any quarterback could.
In that sense, he may be the most valuable player in the league. Tom Brady has obviously had more success, but the Patriots have managed to go 13-6 during his rare absences in the last 15 years.
The good new for the Saints:
They planned for this eventuality by making Teddy Bridgewater the NFL’s highest-paid backup with a one-year, $7.25 million contract this season.
The bad news for the Saints:
Bridgewater lost his only start in New Orleans when the Saints played a meaningless game in the 2018 season finale. He also failed to lead the Saints to a touchdown against the Rams on Sunday, only the third time in Payton’s 12-plus seasons they’ve been kept out of the end zone.
None of which means the Bucs are in the driver’s seat today. Heck, they’re not even riding shotgun at this point. The favorite in the NFC South may still be New Orleans. If not, then Atlanta.
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So Tampa Bay’s unlikely path to the playoffs still looks like a reach, but at least now there is a new formula to consider. Between Brees’ injury and Cam Newton’s pitiful performance against the Bucs on Thursday night in Carolina, Tampa Bay’s early-season schedule doesn’t look as daunting as it once did.
During the next four weeks, the Bucs face a pair of 0-2 teams (the Giants and Panthers) and one team missing its franchise quarterback (the Saints). Suddenly, it’s not inconceivable for the Bucs to reach the bye week after the London trip at 3-3 or even 4-2.
There are still plenty of unknowns to consider. It’s possible Bridgewater will look a whole lot better in the coming weeks as he gets more practice with the first team, although he’s going to be tested quickly with a game at Seattle on Sunday and the following week at home against Dallas.
Brees has also left open the possibility that he might return sooner. After seeing a leading hand specialist in Los Angeles on Monday, he is now seeking a second opinion.
In the meantime, Bucs fans have reason for renewed optimism. It might be fleeting. It might be selfish in the face of Brees’ woes. It might even be misplaced if Bridgewater exceeds expectations.
But, for now, it is plausible. Even if you keep it to yourself.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.