SEAN PAYTON LEANS forward in his chair, looks at the huge flat-screen wall monitor he uses to watch game tape in his office and begins punching his remote. "I want to show you something," says Payton. "This is amazing. Watch." He cues up the Saints' 34--3 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 7 and moves ahead to a second-and-five for the Saints from the Carolina 19-yard line with just under three minutes to play in the first half. The play call is Bunch right tear, fake slash 37, weak F, naked right, Z escape, Y boiler. Brees will take a snap, feign a handoff to running back Julius Jones, turn and roll on a bootleg to his right and then make a rapid series of reads before choosing a target and throwing. Three receivers—Robert Meachem, David Thomas and Heath Evans—are "bunched" at the right side of the formation; rookie tight end Jimmy Graham is alone outside on the left.
At the snap the Panthers blitz three men from the right side of the offense and none are effectively blocked, bringing immediate heat on Brees. After Brees fakes to Jones—"With his back to the blitz," says Payton, no small detail—he turns and shuffles right, looking at Meachem, Thomas and Evans. Abruptly Brees switches direction, backpedaling parallel to the line of scrimmage. He plants his right foot, swivels his head to the left and throws across the field to Graham for a touchdown. "You know how people say a quarterback reads A, B, C, D?" says Payton. "That was, like, G. Or H. It blew my mind. We've never even talked about throwing back to Jimmy Graham on that play."
What Brees saw, even before the snap, was that the 6'6" Graham was going to be single-covered by 5'11" cornerback Richard Marshall. Brees was still willing to throw outside to Meachem, except that as soon as Brees snapped his head around from the run fake he saw that the front-side corner was jumping Meachem and that three pass rushers were coming free. "He processed all that in about two seconds," says Payton. "A lot of quarterbacks would have thrown an incompletion toward Meachem or thrown a pick. I still hadn't sorted it all out when Drew got to the sideline. I said, 'How did you get to Graham?' You know how many quarterbacks in the league make that play? Three? Maybe four?"
It was just one play, but one play can reveal a man. The Brees who went under Andrews's scope in 2006 was broken. The Brees who now leads a team and a city is whole. His initial rehab was stunning. "The most remarkable of any patient I've ever treated," Andrews told SI in 2007. Brees's work ethic since has been inspirational. "Follow him around for a day," says Payton. "You'll just go, 'Wow.'" Last July, on the morning after winning four ESPY Awards in Los Angeles and attending parties afterward, Brees met Durkin for a 7 a.m. workout at USC. "We could have done it at nine or 10, or we could have waited until later in the day back in San Diego," says Durkin, "but Drew wants an edge. 'I'm doing it and they're not.'" During the season he continues to do a full set of light-weight, high-rep shoulder exercises four days a week, always thinking back to 2005.
It's Brees who formulates the Saints' raucous pregame chants and leads them like a middle linebacker. It's Brees who stays after practice every day, grooming the Saints' receiving corps, building the communal faith that makes a modern passing offense work. "The biggest thing Drew ever said to me," says slot receiver Lance Moore, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo who has caught 169 passes in five seasons with Brees, "is, 'I trust you.' When Drew trusts you, you can get the ball anytime." Marques Colston, a seventh-round pick out of Hofstra, arrived in New Orleans the same year as Brees, and through endless repetition the two have become arguably the most effective back-shoulder combo in NFL history. "Just being around that great a player, a guy who works so hard," says Colston, "it makes you feel like you have to raise the level of your game."
For precisely that reason Tampa Bay's Olson arranged for his second-year quarterback, Josh Freeman, to spend a week with Brees last summer in San Diego, soaking up the effort (but not discussing schemes, since they play in the same division). Likewise Brian Schottenheimer put Mark Sanchez on the phone with Brees during the off-season. Miller says he gets a steady stream of 5'11" high school clients at his gym who say they want to be the next Drew Brees. "I have to tell them there's a little more to it than being short," says Miller.
Brees juggles the roles of franchise quarterback and local hero by dividing his day into sections and dealing only with the task at hand. Friends have seen it before. "At Purdue we would all study in front of the TV," says Jason Loerzel, a former Purdue linebacker and roommate of Brees's who now lives in New Orleans. "Drew couldn't do it. If the TV was on he had to watch the TV. You couldn't even talk to him." Brees holds rigorously to routine. "He controls every aspect of his life," says Stinchcomb. For instance: Last summer Brees's family moved from one vacation home in San Diego to another, and Brees insisted on renting a U-Haul and doing the job himself. Wiser heads prevailed before Brees started putting couches on his back but not until he had transferred three loads of smaller items.
In the fall of '06 Payton left his office shortly after noon on the bye-week Sunday, and as he climbed into his car, he noticed a solitary figure on the practice field in gray shorts and gray practice T-shirt. It was Brees, dropping back, throwing on air, jogging up the field to the next imaginary line of scrimmage and throwing again.
"What are you doing?" said Payton, incredulous.
"We usually play on Sunday, so I don't want to mess up the routine," said Brees.