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Saints follow Drew Brees’ lead

By Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News –

Drew Brees won a Super Bowl and has been the NFL’s Man of the Year. As the gunslinger operating pro football’s most explosive offense, he also might be this year’s league MVP.

But after the New Orleans quarterback broke the all-time single-season passing yardage record last month, Brees gave a heartfelt speech about something other than himself.

The team.

“I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anybody else,” Brees said in the locker room. “You make me so proud, and this is only another steppingstone to our ultimate goal.”

The high-powered Saints are on a quest for their second NFL title in three seasons as they face the 49ers on Saturday at Candlestick Park. And it’s difficult to imagine any player in the NFL more closely associated with his franchise and city.

Brees has been a rallying figure both on the field and in a community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

That’s why, when he broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old passing mark as the Saints clinched the NFC South title on Dec. 26, the Superdome crowd wouldn’t stop cheering for New Orleans’ favorite son as teammates took turns embracing their quarterback.

“If I could have put him on my shoulders and paraded him around the whole stadium, I would have done that,” offensive lineman Carl Nicks told reporters later. “He deserves it . . . You could tell by everyone’s reaction after he did it how much people care about that guy. We all love him.”

And he has the rest of the NFL’s respect.

“His perfection, his drive to be perfect is unbelievable,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said.

This season Brees set NFL records for yardage (5,476), completion percentage (71.2 percent) and number of completions (468) to go along with a league-best 46 touchdown passes. If he isn’t named the NFL’s best player, it will only be because Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has been equally brilliant.

Last weekend, the Saints won their ninth consecutive game when Brees threw for 466 yards and three TDs in a 45-28 thrashing of Detroit as the Saints set a playoff record with 626 total yards.

Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach and former NFL quarterback, raves about Brees’ ability to dissect defenses, his quick release and pinpoint throwing accuracy.

“You marvel,” Harbaugh said, “you really do.”

Perhaps more important is the undefinable ability of Brees to lead. He persuades everyone around him to believe that they can attain the collective goal.

“He’s such a competitor,” said center Jonathan Goodwin, a first-year 49er after five seasons with the Saints. “When the best guy on the team also is the hardest worker, it’s easy for guys to follow and believe in everything he says. He’s been through a lot in his career, and he’s always come out on top.”

In 2006, Brees had been nudged to the curb by the San Diego Chargers after his throwing shoulder needed to be surgically rebuilt following a devastating injury. He found a home in New Orleans — a city rebuilding in the wake of Katrina’s destruction a year earlier.

The match resulted in the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl title and Brees being named the MVP. That game remains a potent symbol of resiliency for both a man and a city.

“I needed New Orleans just as much as New Orleans needed me,” Brees told Sports Illustrated when the magazine named him its 2010 Sportsman of the Year. “People in New Orleans needed somebody to care about them. And it was the one place that cared about me.”

But it’s more than just football. He’s a one-man charitable operation.

The Brees Dream Foundation has raised more than $7 million for causes such as cancer research and youth programs in New Orleans, San Diego and West Lafayette, Ind., home of his alma mater Purdue.

“He does so much off the field down there,” Goodwin said. “He makes himself so available to that community. He’s just such a great individual who has a great heart. Everybody loves him. Heck, I love him.”

This season, with Brees leading the league-wide arms race of slinging quarterbacks, the Saints offense has been dominant — ranking first in total offense, first in passing and second in points. Harbaugh called it “a high-octane offense that’s clicking on all cylinders.”

Brees believes that’s a factor of veteran players having been immersed in coach Sean Payton’s scheme for six seasons.

“You talk about continuity and consistency with a lot of guys being in the system,” Brees said. “I feel like we’re hitting our stride at the right time.”

And they’re all following one guy.

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