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Imagine the drama in the dome Monday night if quarterback Drew Brees took the field for the quarterback-near empty New Orleans Saints (7-7) against the (7-7) Miami Dolphins (7:15 p.m. central time, ESPN).
Remember “retired” pitcher Roger Clemens’ appearance in the owner’s box of Yankee Stadium in May of 2007? He was pitching again in June. He had already come out of retirement previously in June of 2006 for the Houston Astros.
The Saints tried to coax Brees out of retirement over the Christmas weekend for the Dolphins game, according to Jeff Duncan of the Baton Rouge Advocate, after starting quarterback Taysom Hill and backup Trever Siemian were both ruled out of action due to COVID-19 positive tests last week.
Brees retired last spring at 42 after a season that saw him sidelined for four games late in the season because of multiple broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He was just honored at halftime of the Saints’ 31-6 loss to Buffalo on Thanksgiving night.
Brees, a sure Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, has been working all season as an NFL analyst for NBC, but did consider the idea of a return while with his family in Hawaii when he spoke to Saints coach Sean Payton. He would not have come back as anything but the starter, and in the end decided he could not get adequately prepared in such a short time. Both Hill and Siemian are expected back in time for the Saints’ next game against Carolina on Jan. 2 in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Had Brees returned, he would have likely been the first established quarterback to come out of retirement during a season in NFL history. Quarterback Brett Favre exited retirement from the Green Bay Packers with the New York Jets in 2008 and then again with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009, but each time he began the season with those teams.
Notre Dame rookie Ian Book will start for the Saints, who still have a strong chance of reaching the playoffs after upsetting Tampa Bay and Tom Brady, 9-0, last week, particularly if they can win out for a 10-7 finish. A fourth round pick, Book’s only NFL experience was this past preseason in the opener when he completed 9 of 16 passes for 126 yards with an interception and an 11-yard sack in a 17-14 loss at Baltimore.
“I can count, so I knew I was the last one available,” Book said of Hill and Siemian being ruled out. “It’s been a wild week. There’s no doubt.”
The backup will be former Jacksonville Jaguar starting quarterback Blake Bortles, who became a bit of a pop cultural phenomenon in recent years on the comedy “The Good Place” on NBC from 2016-20. The Saints just signed Bortles, 29, on Christmas Eve. He has not played since he took three snaps as a backup in the 2019 season with the Los Angeles Rams.
Bortles, the third player picked in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Central Florida, started for Jacksonville from 2014-18 and led the Jaguars to their first AFC title game since 1999 in 2017. The character Jason Mendozo on “The Good Place” is a Jacksonville, Florida, native and raved on and on about his love for Bortles in the show so much that a cameo by Bortles was long expected, but did not happen.
A Brees cameo will also not happen, but it was fun to think about.
“What a Christmas miracle that would have been,” Duncan wrote.
After Brees, the Saints also tried to lure former NFL quarterbacks Josh McCown and Phillip Rivers out of retirement to no avail.
The Saints are left with Book and Bortles, which sounds like a combination book and wine bar.
But they do have coach Sean Payton back. Payton missed the win over Tampa Bay as he was ruled out after a COVID-19 positive test on the Friday before the game, but not before he had the game plan done for interim coach/defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Payton cleared COVID-19 protocols this past Friday.
“We’re adjusting and doing everything on the fly,” Payton said. “That was a great road win, and it puts us in a real good position with three games left in the season.”
But the Saints have 21 players on the COVID-19 list as of Monday morning who are not expected to play Monday night. Among those are four starters – linebackers Kwon Alexander and DeMario Davis, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and tight end Adam Trautman. Also expected to be out with COVID-19 are wide receiver/kick returner Deonte Harris and defensive end Carl Granderson.
The Saints are down to 49 on their roster from a maximum of 53.
Questionable with injuries are four other starters – offensive tackle Terron Armstead (knee), wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (shoulder), defensive end Marcus Davenport (shoulder) and safety Marcus Williams (shoulder).
Payton is also expected to be without three assistant coaches who tested positive for COVID-19 – special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, assistant defensive backs coach Cory Robinson and assistant offensive line coach Zach Strief.
“The situation is ever changing,” Payton said. “That is the uniqueness of this season.”
Payton likely never thought he would be preparing to start a personal record fourth quarterback this year in a season that has wreaked havoc on the roster. The first starter was Jameis Winston, who was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered against Tampa Bay on Oct. 31, then Siemian and Hill, and now Book.
“We have a new quarterback, but it’s more than just a new quarterback,” Payton said. “It’s everyone else painting the right picture.”
That happened last week at 10-3 Tampa Bay, which was favored by 11 points. Miami is a three-point favorite by FanDuel.
“It was exciting,” Payton said of what his team did last week in a situation very similar to this week. “A challenging week, not just with me, but shoot with offensive linemen out, various defensive players. That (Tampa Bay) is a good football team.”
So is Miami, which has won six straight. At least, the Dolphins have seen less of Book than the Saints.
“There are certain things he does well,” Payton said. “He plays outside the pocket really well. He gets rid of the ball well. He’s accurate. He can move and escape.”
And if the Saints find themselves in a bad place, there is Bortles.
“We’ll get him up to speed and figure out the things that he’s most comfortable with in the event he has to play,” Payton said after one practice with Bortles, who was with Green Bay briefly this season and with the Rams and Denver briefly in 2020..
“The key for us is the preparation right now,” he said. “Preparation with our players who are here.”