ESPN’s Monday Night Football commentators Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski discuss the highly anticipated Monday Night Football game between Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (7-3) and Drew Brees and the undefeated New Orleans Saints (10-0) Monday, Nov. 30 on ESPN and ESPN HD (8:30 p.m. ET):
On quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees …
Gruden: “These two guys are CEOs – they understand everything that’s going on all the time, and the bigger the moment the better their performances. They are great talents and they are in great systems that accentuate their talents. They’ve been at it for a while and their supporting casts help a lot also.”
Jaws: “They both have a good supporting cast and they are both veteran guys in the same system for a number of years. There comes a point when your athletic talent meets your mental talent and I think they are both at the top of their games right now both physically and mentally. It’s not surprising that they are both having absolutely phenomenal years.
Tirico: “I was around both of these guys a little bit when I called their games in college. Even though they are at the top of their profession right now, people didn’t really think they were going to be the can’t miss guys like a Peyton Manning and No. 1 overall picks coming out. That’s what I enjoy about them. They have worked their way to this lofty status as two of the best in the NFL.”
On the similarities between Brady and Brees …
Gruden: “There are a lot of similarities above the neck. Both guys lead the civilized world in effort. They’re there before sunrise and they’re there after dark. They are tempo setters and leaders. They are both crunch time performers, but physically they are different. Tom is 6-4, 6-5, while Brees is six-feet tall and came up the hard way. The interesting thing about both of these guys is that they came into the league kind of obscure, and that has a lot to do with where they are today. Brady was a sixth round draft choice – really came out of nowhere and wasn’t the go-to-guy at Michigan. Brees was considered too short. People said his career was over when he left San Diego – nobody wanted him. Both guys use that as fuel to prove to everybody they made a grave error.”
On the potential keys to Monday night’s game …
Gruden: “The Saints defense is a lot different than it has been, and so is New England’s with the absence of guys like Seymour, Vrabel, Bruschi and Harrison out of the mix. You have a revamped secondary in New England and Bill Belichick knows that. They lost a lot of guys – big time, crunch time players – so they have adjusted their scheme to fit their personnel. They have some young guys playing in their secondary along with some veterans, and so do the Saints. The addition of Gregg Williams was really big. He has come in and totally changed the culture of the Saints defense with an aggressive, blitzing style, but they have some injuries too. Health is a problem for New Orleans. I think you have two great defensive coaches going after two great offenses.
Jaws: “They are clearly elite teams. Both have explosive players on offense, solid running games and I think it’s going to be a very high scoring game. It’s not very often that you look at a game and say it’s going to be in the 40s, but with these two offenses right now this one could be that kind of game. I also say that based on how both defenses are playing. New Orleans is banged up. They have a depleted secondary right now. You have got to believe that Tom is going to come out and spread the field and just try to bring the Saints’ fourth and fifth best corners on the field. That is not a good sign when you have Tom Brady coming in with a plethora of receivers and tight ends. On the other side, the Pats defense has been a little bit inconsistent this year. They are in a transition mode trying to find out who they are and playing younger players in the secondary, trying to break in a new defensive line and linebackers. They are not working in harmony like you are used to seeing the Patriots defense work. With Drew Brees’ ability to read coverage and get rid of the football, I expect him to have a big day as well. If you like quarterbacking and you like offense, you want to record this one. It could be one for the ages.”
Tirico: “The Patriots are so much different than what we saw week 1. That was an offense that wasn’t ready to hit the way they are hitting now. Their pass game was rusty. Tom was rusty. Tom’s confidence has built and his health has built. We forget that’s a pretty serious injury to come back from. And New Orleans now has the defense that is a perfect complement to its offense. … What I love about both teams is they have multiple guys who can beat you. To me, the team that wins the game is the one that comes up with the better defensive game plan because these offenses are going to score on everybody. Whose defense can come up with the game plan to try to take away what the other team does, and that’s a great chess match.”
On what has made the Saints so successful this year …
Gruden: “They’ve always been outstanding on offense but this year they are just more committed to the run and more balanced. They have two Pro Bowl guards – I don’t care what anybody says — and they can really get after you physically. Mike Bell is a punishing back, Pierre Thomas is a versatile back, and Reggie Bush is a magician, so they have three different kinds of backs. Shockey is back to total health which he hasn’t been since he was in New York, and Drew Brees is Drew Brees. They protect him, and they can run it and throw it, and that’s a problem for defenses. The big deal with the Saints has been their defense and their ability to run the ball in key situations – short yardage, goal line, protect the lead, run out the clock. They’re generating turnovers on defense. They’re gambling and they’re aggressive. They have really picked it up on that side of the ball. The Saints have everything you need to make a long run and have an unbelievable year.”
Jaws: “Offensively, they are playing well enough to get a lead early and force the defense into situations when the other team has to throw the football. By getting ahead, they force the other team to be one dimensional, which helps their defense out. They are also running the football a lot better. That’s the most overlooked aspect of the Saints right now, particularly in the second half. They are not only grinding games out, killing the clock on offense, but they are running the football even when they get behind like they did in the game against the Jets. They got back in the second half of that game by running the ball. That’s helping them. People will look at Brees and his numbers, but they are not a one dimensional team. The running game is also taking the pressure off Brees by avoiding those third and long situations.”
Tirico: “The Saints now have a defense that not only has the people but the style complements the offense. It’s an aggressive attacking blitzing defense, which means they may come up with a big play but even if they miss they are going to get the ball back in Drew Brees’ hands pretty quick.”
On the Patriots maintaining their consistency as one of the league’s elite teams …
Gruden: “Jerod Mayo is an up and coming star in the league. (Gary) Guyton has come out of nowhere to be a really good every down linebacker. It’s just a credit to Bill Belichick. They lost Scott Pioli in the front office, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to the Broncos, I don’t know how many people they’ve lost and they haven’t missed a beat. It starts at the top and we all know who’s at the top, and that’s Bill Belichick — and right next to him is Tom Brady.”
Jaws: “We all know the Belichick profile. It’s about team. He’s always able to fill in a gap when he does have a gap. Knowing Bill’s style and how he likes to manage his team, he sees where this team is going to be at the end of the season. A lot of teams are going week to week, saying win this game or that game, but Bill has a vision. He knows what this team should look like in December and going into the playoffs, and that’s why he’s always tinkering, moving guys in or out, putting guys inactive if they are not performing up to what his standard is. When you see that on the defensive side happening, you know he’s not happy yet. At the same time, he’s always had 15 or 16 starters and there’s been a rotation for the Patriots defense because Bill likes to put guys in a position that plays to their strengths. He’s always been good about rotating personnel into a game. You’re always going to get a turnover of players on the defensive side of the ball. Right now he’s still tweaking it, and, based on the number of players I see playing, he’s not quite there yet.”
On the similarities between coaches Belichick and Payton …
Gruden: “Anytime you coach a guy like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, you tend to be aggressive as a play caller. They just have tremendous confidence in their quarterback, and they should. These guys complete 70 percent of their passes, their NFL MVP candidates. Brees threw for 5,000 yards last season, and the other guy’s won three Super Bowls. They are aggressive play callers, but I don’t know if they would be that aggressive with just any other quarterback, but their history and their trust levels with these quarterbacks is special and in key situations they rely on them.”
Jaws: “We all know how well the Patriots have done this decade winning multiple championships and a lot of that has to do with Bob Kraft and their organization, that there’s the commitment to excellence and the commitment to winning. A lot of teams talk about it and say they are there to win, but not everyone really goes out there and does the job. Obviously, the Patriots have done this and what I’m seeing now in New Orleans over the last few years, I see an organization that’s committed with Tom Benson and Mickey Loomis, and the guy that has the keys and is driving the car is Sean Payton. They are now going out and making the moves necessary to be successful. You have to have that full-blown commitment to win and the Saints are getting it.”
On the importance of this particular game …
Gruden: “The magnitude of this game is huge. Bragging rights are important and all your peers are watching, and you know that. The Patriots don’t want anyone to go 16-0 but them. There’s going to be incentive for them to win this game. For the Saints, why wouldn’t you want to take out the New England Patriots on national TV to increase your credibility and maintain home field advantage? They are hard to beat in that dome and home field advantage for them in the NFC is huge. Even with Indianapolis having a commanding lead in the AFC, the Patriots would like to secure home field as well because of Gillette Stadium and Tom Brady. It’s hard for opposing teams to win there.
On whether Monday night’s Patriots-Saints game could be a potential Super Bowl preview …
Gruden: “Pick up a copy of the preseason ESPN Magazine. This is who I picked to be in the Super Bowl. I think it’s a reality. I like the continuity of the head coach and the quarterback, and in my opinion the battery of head coach and quarterback goes a long way to winning it all. You have that with both the Patriots and the Saints.”
On whether there will be a lingering effect on the Patriots as a result of the 4th and 2 against the Colts two weeks ago …
Jaws: “It’s situations like that that motivate their football team. It makes them a little more angry. They are a very tight football team and they play for each other. It’s not a team that’s very concerned about what happens outside its own building. They are concerned about each other. They saw what was happening – people questioning Bill Belichick’s move. I guarantee those players will rally around Belichick. They love playing for him because they know that gives them the best chance to win a championship.
“You can’t coach by the book. A lot of it’s got to be instinct, understanding your talent and your team. That’s why Bill is so good and why he’s been successful. He does the unconventional, unorthodox thing and that’s what makes him special.”
On the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans …
Jaws (who played in the Superdome in his lone Super Bowl appearance as a player): “It’s spectacular. It’s one of the greatest places to play. I will never forget the re-opening of the dome three years ago against the Falcons. I was at the tunnel when the Saints came out onto the field. Literally as those guys were coming out, my ears were hurting from the noise. The players looked like they were three feet off the ground running onto the field. There was an adrenaline rush and an excitement that I have never felt before at a football game that I wasn’t playing in. It was remarkable. That place is so noisy and they have some of the greatest fans in the world.
“They have been through so much in that community and they have rallied behind the Saints. Whenever we go meet with Coach Payton, Drew Brees and others, they talk so much about community. They feel such an important part of that giving back. They really have become the backbone of that community. It’s always exciting to go there and cover a game and be part of the atmosphere, especially this season with an undefeated team. It’s going to be wild.”
Tirico: “That dome gets loud. It gets boisterous. It can be difficult to play in, but it’s also a thrilling atmosphere. A big game in the Superdome reminds me of the old big games at the Orange Bowl. There are certain stadiums that host a game and it just feels big, and this is one of them.
“Every time I go back to New Orleans, it’s impressed upon me how that team — and the marriage with the Saints and the city — is so unique and so different. They are New Orleans’ Saints because they belong to the city. It’s everywhere you go. People are very proud, very prideful, of anything that is New Orleans, and the Saints were the first opportunity to show that the city was open for business – it still had its same soul and character and culture to it. The players have also adopted what the city is all about – the city struggles, the strife and the pride. Because Sean Payton and Drew Brees have been at the front of that, it’s made a really big impact. It’s a special place.”
On the specialness of this Monday Night Football game …
Tirico: “To the players, that Monday night stage is special, whether it’s in front of peers or family, it’s the only game of the night. We have seen star players have big games on Monday night week after week and year after year. With these two star quarterbacks at the absolute top of their profession, this is one of those ideal Monday Night moments waiting to happen in the perfect venue.
“This game has every ingredient – the quarterbacks, the high-powered offenses, what’s on the line for both teams as they head to the postseason, that underlying thing of the Patriots are the team that went undefeated in a 16-game schedule, two coaches who came off the Parcells tree, star players all over the field. Usually Thanksgiving weekend is this 96-hour barrage of football. Well, the great part of this year is it all kind of builds up to a crescendo and the best is left for last with this matchup on Monday Night Football.”
Senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman: “It’s rare that you get heavy weight matchups of this caliber, two great offenses and two great quarterbacks, and there is no greater place that rocks like the superdome. The place will be electric and we look forward to capturing it all. It’s a big time battle between two great quarterbacks and we know all of America will be tuning in.”