By RACHEL COHEN, AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — QB Drew Brees is confident that he and the Saints will agree on a long-term contract.
With the start of training camp about a month off, the two sides still have "a ways to go" to close the gap, the 2010 Super Bowl MVP said Tuesday.
Nonetheless, he said, "I'm confident, and always have been, that we'll get a long-term deal accomplished."
Brees acknowledged that the NFL's bounty investigation into the Saints has slowed down negotiations.
"This has been a stressful offseason in a lot of ways. There's been a lot of distractions for everybody," he said. "I'm not using that as an excuse other than just stating it as fact. That has delayed things quite a bit at times."
And when it comes to that bounty probe, Brees is adamant that the league has not proved money ever changed hands in a pay-to-injure scheme.
"How can everybody think that when there's been no proof that's been put forth thus far?" he said. "There's been an investigation; there's been a lot of stuff put in the media as to what was going on. But is there any proof to back that up? No, there's not. Not yet."
Brees was in New York on Tuesday to discuss a program that provides free concussion testing for more than 3,300 middle and high schools and youth sports organizations. He was joined on a panel by retired New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter, former New York Giants LB Carl Banks and ex-U.S. women's soccer team goalkeeper Briana Scurry.
Scurry's career was ended by a concussion more than two years ago, and she still suffers symptoms such as short-term memory loss, she said. Against that backdrop are the allegations that Saints defensive players intended to injure their opponents.
But Brees described the NFL's evidence so far as "hearsay" and "hypotheticals," not the definitive proof needed.
"If there is, then it needs to come forward," he said. "If it is what they say it is, then punishments will be levied and deservedly so. But if there's not, then we need to vindicate the guys that were obviously wrongly accused."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded in an email to The Associated Press that "the evidence is overwhelming."
"The investigation was thorough and includes statements from multiple sources with firsthand knowledge about the details of the program, corroborating documentation and other evidence," Aiello said. "The enforcement of the bounty rule is important to protect players that are put at risk by this kind of scheme. Certainly, Drew Brees would not want to be the target in a bounty scheme and that is why we must eliminate bounties from football."
Even if Brees signs in time and doesn't miss any of training camp, the Saints will be short-handed after the penalties handed out by the NFL in the bounty case. Coach Sean Payton and LB Jonathan Vilma have been suspended the entire season. Assistant coach Joe Vitt, the interim replacement for Payton, is banned for six games, while DE Will Smith is docked four. General manager Mickey Loomis will miss eight games.
Former Saints DL Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended eight games and LB Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, got three games.
"They had a conclusion that they wanted to reach that this was going on," Brees said of the NFL. "So a predetermined conclusion: We're going to gear the investigation and everything toward that conclusion as opposed to let's just gather the facts."
The league accused the Saints of running a bounty system from 2009-11 under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has been suspended indefinitely by Commissioner Roger Goodell and issued an apology for his role in the scandal.
Brees questioned the testimony coaches gave to the NFL.
"A lot those coaches were living in fear of their careers if they did not cooperate," he said.
The Saints placed their one-year exclusive franchise tag on Brees, barring him from negotiating with other teams. Brees has skipped voluntary practices and minicamp while holding out for a long-term deal.
"I feel like there's been progress made over the last few weeks," he said. "But there's still a ways to go. I'm hopeful that it will happen sooner than later."
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