Quarterback Drew Brees will miss the first game in his New Orleans Saints career due to injury, Coach Sean Payton announced Friday.
Brees bruised his right rotator cuff in the Saints' 26-19 loss to Tampa Bay at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, and wasn't able to recover and rehabilitate sufficiently to play two days from now against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Brees will travel with the team to Charlotte, but 12-year veteran Luke McCown will make his 10th NFL start, with rookie Garrett Grayson serving as his backup.
"I think just where he's at in the rehab and his strength, I think he felt – I think we all felt – it would be too early, him playing this weekend," Payton said. "I would say next week we'll continue the process, without trying to put an estimation about his return.
"But I think he felt like he made progress throughout the week, and yet, it's still not where it needs to be or where we would feel comfortable with the strength that he needs. But he did get better each day and we'll just see where it's at next week."
Brees practiced on a limited basis Thursday and Wednesday, and threw some but was unable to produce the velocity he deemed necessary to be effective.
"We talked this morning and I think he felt that it was the best thing," Payton said. "I don't think it was a difficult decision today. I think it actually was the opposite, for just where he's at.
"His focus and preparation throughout the week was very much like he was starting. We're just paying attention to where it's at and doing the right thing."
Brees, the Saints' all-time leader in every major passing category, has started 155 games (including 10 playoff games) in his 10 seasons as a Saint. The only game he had missed prior to Sunday was the 2009 regular-season finale against Carolina, when the Saints already had clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs and went on to win the Super Bowl.
"When you're on your 10th year for Drew, we've been blessed, he's been blessed with his health and his ability to play down in and down out," Payton said. "In our league, that's unusual. That's a strong statement for the way he takes care of his body, the way he conditions and trains and how he prepares. That's not really by accident. I'm sure he'll be back sooner than later and ready to go."
Now, the role of helming the Saints offense falls to McCown, who has completed 184 of 317 passes for 2,035 yards and nine touchdowns, with 14 interceptions, in 54 games played. His best season was 2007 with Tampa Bay, when he started three of five games and completed 94 of 139 passes for 1,009 yards and five touchdowns, with three interceptions.
McCown hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game since Dec. 22, 2013, when he threw incomplete in a fake punt against Carolina. Prior to that, his last passes had come as a Jacksonville Jaguar in 2011.
"Whether you're playing or you're not playing, your approach has to be to prepare like you're going to play," McCown said. "That's the way it's been this week, that's the way it was last week, that's the way it's been the last two years. The opportunity presents itself and you go and try and do whatever you can do to help your team win.
"This is our team and this is an opportunity for us, the Saints, to go out to play and to try and put a 'W' in the win column."
Receiver Marques Colston, who has all of his 673 receptions, 9,337 yards and 68 touchdowns – all franchise records – from Brees, said McCown's teammates are confident in his ability.
"We have all the confidence in the world in Luke to go out and run the offense, and run it well," Colston said. "We've been able to get reps with him all week and we're ready to roll.
"The offense doesn't really change much. He's a guy who's been here for awhile and knows the system well."
Payton echoed that sentiment, saying the offense will not significantly change under McCown's direction.
"He's real smart," Payton said. "He said something earlier in the week which is true – one of the challenges of being in that position as the No. 2 quarterback is, you might go two-and-a-half years of preparing every week like you're getting ready to play, and then all of a sudden, here it comes.
"There's a mental challenge to that and a mental discipline that I think is a strength of his. So even prior to this week, if you've watched us and you see us practice, you see him in the huddle actually kind of mirroring the quarterback from behind, making the calls himself, so he's sharp and he'll be ready to play.
"There are a lot of similarities, so we're not dealing with two completely different types of quarterbacks. The key is the right plan for Carolina and the right plan for us this week."
It's a plan that McCown said he's ready to execute, despite not having started a game since '11.
"You have to put yourself in that position mentally, so that you're not surprised," he said. "So I was trying to put myself there mentally on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday so that whatever the news was that came down from upstairs, I was ready for it.
"I never got into football hoping to be a backup. I started and played 45 straight games in college, so you never approach something like, 'I hope don't play today.' It's an opportunity that I'm excited about, but I'm excited because it's a chance to help our team win. It's not been about me, it's not about Drew, it's about the Saints. We've got to do whatever we can do to put a win up on the board for us."
Photos of Luke McCown from 2015 Training Camp and 2015 preseason games. New Orleans Saints photos.