Competition brings out best in Drew Brees, quarterbacks

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — An obstacle course has sprung up on the lower field at the Saints training camp facility at The Greenbrier.

There are tackling dummies, flipped-over trash cans, and cones zigzagging between the hash marks in the middle of the field.

Dozens of tennis balls sit in the middle of the course, and at the end there are two targets sitting on the back line of the end zone. The set-up is so elaborate that it looks like something out of an old episode of “American Gladiators,” which is by design.

In a few minutes, the latest quarterback challenge will take place within the confines of these cones, which is not to be confused with group’s quarterback competitions. The two are different, though both are important to the group.

This particular competition is an important one. Ryan Griffin recently pulled ahead in the competition standings, which are kept in a meeting room, with four wins.

Drew Brees and Luke McCown are in second place with three victories, and Logan Kilgore is pulling up the rear. If Griffin wins again, Kilgore will be buried, and Brees will have a tough hill to climb the next few weeks.

Once things kick off, it’s clear this competition has been well-scripted. There’s a man in the middle throwing tennis balls at the quarterbacks, and points are lost if one of the participants is hit moving to the next station.

Throws from different areas are worth different point totals. It looks like the most fun anyone could have on a football field, but this is serious business.

“There’s not a day that goes by where if you got a chance to squeeze them while you got them down, or choke them while you got them,” quarterbacks coach Mike Neu said. “There’s a very intense competition.”

On this day, company arrives atop the leader board. Brees and McCown both finish with six points to force overtime, while McCown knocks off the starter to earn his third win of the season. Coach Sean Payton also took part but was knocked off by his players.

Soon, there will be another competition, each one seemingly more elaborate than the last. The quarterbacks have used water bottles to create football’s version of skeet shooting. They’ve attempted to throw footballs into the top of an enclosed ladder, and drop it into a trash can on the back of a moving cart.

Basically, any idea someone comes up with is a reason to create a new competition.

Chances are, Brees is already plotting the next one so he can earn his next victory. It pains him to be in third place, but he has designs to pull away and claim the title by the end of camp.

“It’s a marathon, it’s back and forth,” Brees said. “All that matters is who is on top in two weeks.”

There should be plenty of opportunities for Brees to make his move. The competitions might be elaborate and a way to have a bit of fun, but the challenges differ in that they serve a purpose.

During Tuesday’s practice, some of the quarterbacks had difficulty hitting throws on the run. So, after the session ended, the four quarterbacks took the field and created a contest that required them to throw on the run.

Each day, they find different issues to work on, like many other teams do. The difference is that the Saints keep score.

“It’s something that we have to work on,” Brees said. “Set up some bags and throw at them, and there’s going to be a winner and three losers.”

As expected, the competition between the Saints quarterbacks extends to other areas where score is not kept. If a winner can be declared at something, all of them are striving to be the best.

There is a champion for any and every mundane task you can imagine.

“They compete at everything they do,” Neu said. “After we get done with our after stretch, we do our pre-practice deal when we go to individual. You see them racing to touch the tape. It’s just a very competitive group.”

It creates an interesting dynamic, because there is a battle playing out between Griffin, Kilgore, and McCown for the backup spot, though that’s likely a two-man race between McCown and Griffin. It’s also possible those three men are fighting for one roster spot.

When it’s all over, there will be winners and losers. And the stakes will be much greater than bragging rights.

But even though they are fighting for their lives, the group, even with their competitive nature, remains close-knit and pulls for one another to succeed.

“They’ve got each other’s back, they help each other,” Neu said. “Drew does a great job of helping the other quarterbacks.”

Just so long as the results don’t show up in one of their competitions.