METAIRIE, La. » Drew Brees stood alone on the goal line, reflecting on everything that went wrong in practice. Then he took off, running the length of the New Orleans Saints’ practice field several times over.
It’s his way of punishing himself for bad throws and poor execution during practice.
At 31, Brees is at the top of his game — and he wants to stay there.
He routinely throws extra passes after practice to a handful of receivers, and when Brees is the last player remaining on the field, helmet still on, he runs sprints that no one but himself has required of him.
"I punish myself from time to time with conditioning or whatever," Brees said. "When you feel like you don’t have something down … you spend the extra time to get it done and make sure you feel comfortable and confident with it."
Brees said he usually picks a number that means something to determine how much "punishment" he should receive.
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"If I throw a pick, I might say for every pick I throw, I will run two extra gassers," he said. "Or, for every incompletion or bad decision, I am going to do this. If I ran a 2-minute drill that I am not happy with, I might go back through it again and visualize the defense I saw and run through the routes that I wish I would have done or the throws I wish I would have made."
Brees doesn’t have to wish for much off the field.
He is the reigning Super Bowl MVP, newly published best-selling author and cover boy for the popular "Madden" football video game.
But defending Super Bowl titles has proven tough the past decade or so, according to statistics that Brees can rattle off from memory.
Five of the previous 11 Super Bowl winners didn’t make it back to the playoffs one season later. Only the New England Patriots of 2003-04 have repeated as champions in the past decade.
Brees has spoken of being motivated by the fear of failure, and he said soon after the Saints began offseason training that there was no better time to instill such fear in the squad than right after their championship. So when coach Sean Payton highlighted the failures or recent NFL champs during a meeting last spring, Brees was pleased.
"We haven’t been down this road before as defending champs, but the fact of the matter is we all know this is a new season and everybody has the same hopes and aspirations," Brees said. "There are 32 teams that believe this can be their year. … We know that we are going to get everybody’s best shot. We know we have to put our best foot forward every time we step on the field."
Regardless of how this season plays out, one thing that seems clear to Brees’ coaches and teammates — the Pro Bowl quarterback’s preparation has not been diminished by his busy offseason.
Brees bounced around the talk-show, book-tour and video-game promotion circuit; his wife, Brittany, is pregnant with their second child — a boy due in October; and his community service endeavors were extensive, largely on behalf of children’s programs, schools and the military.
"One thing you don’t have to worry about with Drew is his work ethic and his leadership," said running back Reggie Bush, who also plays receiver in Payton’s high-octane offense. "What you see on the football field is what you get here at the facility every day, Monday through Saturday. That’s why he’s the leader of this team and that’s why he’s been so successful."
Payton said there is no reason for his quarterback’s self-imposed punishment, but he isn’t about to interfere with Brees’ routine.
"It’s probably more of him working on aspects of getting better. I think he’s trying to give himself an edge, whether that’s the time he’s spending (throwing to receivers after practice) or whether it’s conditioning," Payton said. "I just think it’s his competitive nature to keep pressing himself."
The two have a connection that works.
Since Brees and Payton, who calls offensive plays, both arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have led the NFL in offense in three of four years and were fourth in 2007. During that time, Brees has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 18,298 yards — the highest four-year yardage total in NFL history. In 2008, he joined Dan Marino as the second player in NFL history to eclipse 5,000 yards, falling 15 yards short of Marino’s single-season record 5,084.
Brees, who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards each season with New Orleans, now needs 3,437 yards break Archie Manning’s franchise record of 21,734 yards passing. Brees is already the Saints’ all-time leader in TD tosses with 122.
And he could get better.
"He started out (with the Saints) at a super-high level and it’s hard to get better, but he finds some way to do it," receiver Marques Colston said. "The thing he’s really done well is communicate to us what exactly he wants, and that’s what makes the offense click the way it does."