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Drew Brees has upper hand as bounty punishment puts Saints in dire straits

Drew Brees saved the New Orleans Saints once.

Can he pull the trick again?

In the wake of devastation NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell laid on the club Wednesday, Brees’ importance grew beyond just being the team’s franchise player, both literally and figuratively.

Brees is about to become the coach of the Saints. As a result, it’s time for New Orleans owner Tom Benson to pull out his check book, sign and date the first check, hand it to Brees and say, “Fill in the amount.”

[ Michael Silver: Roger Goodell will not tolerate lying, disrespect ]

With head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season, Drew Brees will become the de facto head coach of the New Orleans Saints.
(Getty Images)

No, Brees is not literally going to be the coach. But in every significant way in which the Saints will have to replace Sean Payton, who has been suspended for the entire 2012 campaign, Brees is the guy who will take over.

Play calling and offensive game plan? Yeah, that’s going to be Brees.

Leading the team through critical moments? Yep, that’s Brees.

Being the face of the organization on a daily basis? Drew, you’re the man.

Yeah, yeah, tell me all you want about offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Carmichael is a glorified administrative assistant, a guy who prefers to work behind the scenes and be left alone. If not for football, he would probably be an accountant or a high school teacher. This is not a shot at the latter two professions; those roles are just generally made up of people not seeking the spotlight.

Spagnuolo, of course, has the personality to be a head coach. That’s why he spent the past three seasons with the St. Louis Rams. However, he has a lot of work to do to rebuild his reputation after that run and he has been in New Orleans for all of 30 seconds. Most of the players on the team probably couldn’t pick Spags out of a two-man lineup.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt? Sorry, he was suspended for the first six games for his role in the scandal. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer? Please.

In other words, everything comes back to Brees. In the midst of this storm, Brees is the calming influence who just might be able to salvage a team that has Super Bowl ability.

Of course, you have to pay him first.

Right now, the Saints are in the middle of a stare down with Brees over his contract. Earlier this month, the team put the exclusive franchise tag on him, meaning that Brees can’t sign with another team. In the process, he’s guaranteed roughly between $15 million and $16 million for one year.

Brees, 33, was seeking a deal in the range of $23 million a year. The Saints had countered with $18 million. Both are unrealistic, but the final number is going to come in a lot closer to where Brees wants it than not.

Particularly now.

If there is one player who can command a team more than just about anyone else, it’s Brees. He is universally respected and admired for everything from his performance on the field to his comeback from a career-threatening injury to his community service to his willingness to put his name on a lawsuit against the NFL last year to his leadership on the NFL Players Association executive committee.

In short, Brees is it.

That may be a hard thing for many fans to understand, but it’s true. Anyone who has been around the franchise for more than 10 minutes knows the universal respect Brees commands.

Just as important, Brees has a chance to be the great deodorant for the stink that Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis have created. Brees is the one guy who can stand there as a beacon of dignity while the organization deals with the ugliness of this scandal, which includes a moronic cover up.

That is why Benson and Loomis need to call Brees right now and say, “OK, we give, please come save us from ourselves.” They need to say it before the situation gets any worse. Brees has already hinted very strongly that he’s not going to sign the franchise tender, meaning he could hold out the 2012 season.

[* Yahoo! Sports Radio: Ex-Saint Kyle Turley on NFL’s punishment]

Brees did that earlier in his career and then ended up with a cup in his hand … a hand that was at the end of an arm that was in a sling. Brees didn’t get long-term security in San Diego in 2005 and ended up having to go to New Orleans in 2006.

That move has turned out better than anyone could have imagined, at least until now. Brees was the first big player to sign with the Saints as the team (and the city) tried to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Now, Hurricane Roger has blown through the Saints’ offices and left the team in disarray. The only obvious answer to fixing this problem is getting Brees completely back on board.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 21, 2012