The NFL belongs to Tom Brady. Unless it belongs to Peyton Manning. Unless it belongs to Aaron Rodgers. We could squabble endlessly about which man is the best quarterback in football, as the rest of America is wont to do, but we’d never resolve the issue. Nor would any of us utter the name of Drew Brees.
Brees, the New Orleans Saints’ 36-year-old star, is a Super Bowl champion, the owner of four of the top seven passing seasons in league history and a figure as beloved in the Big Easy as any athlete is anywhere else. Yet he never has been proffered outside of NOLA as being the very best at what he does.
It’s a bit of a wonder why that is. In Sunday night’s 26-20 overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Brees threw a first-quarter touchdown pass that was the 5,000th completion of his 15-year career; with that, he joined Brett Favre (6,300) and the 39-year-old Manning (6,025) as the only members of the exclusive club. When he connected with C.J. Spiller for an 80-yard touchdown on the second play of overtime, it was his 400th scoring pass – putting him in the company of Manning, Favre, Dan Marino and the 38-year-old Brady.
Like Brady and Manning, Favre and Marino often were labeled the best quarterbacks of their eras. If Brees is on any consensus list of the greatest quarterbacks in the game’s history, let’s be honest: It’s a pretty long list.
But maybe that’s all beside the point.
Six NFL teams will be unbeaten heading into Week 5 of the season, among them Brady’s New England Patriots, Manning’s Denver Broncos and Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers. Brees and his bros are a disappointing 1-3. Making matters worse for the Saints, the NFC South is the only division in the league with multiple unbeaten teams. There likely will be no catching either the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons or the 4-0 Carolina Panthers, and there sure as hell won’t be any running down both.
Even making the playoffs as a wild card seems to be off the table for the Saints; it has been 17 years since an NFL team started 0-3 and pulled that off. The 2012 Saints started 0-4 before playing some of the finest football in the league for a full month and a half. They fought all the way back to 5-5, but it seemed to take everything they had; the team finished 7-9 and buried in the standings. That merely illustrates how hard it is to get hot – and stay that way – in parity-driven pro football.
Also, and this seems to matter, New Orleans’ roster isn’t nearly what it was when the team was a postseason fixture from 2009, the Super Bowl season, to 2011. Marques Colston is the only member of the old guard of Saints receivers who was on the field at the Superdome on Sunday, and at 32, Colston certainly puts the “old” in that phrase. Behind a porous offensive line, Brees has been sacked three times per game; he sat out Week 3 with a shoulder injury sustained on a hit from a Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher. Another major problem: The Saints defense ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. Rob Ryan long has been talked about as the wild-maned twin brother of Rex who’s never been a head coach. He may not be long for his defensive coordinator job, either.
Barring something miraculous, this will be the third time in four years New Orleans has missed the playoffs. It feels like the end of an era. It feels like an era is way over.
The Cowboys, by the way, are in it up to their necks themselves. Their defense is stout and their offensive line is perhaps the best in the league – great building blocks, both – but they’re 0-2 since quarterback Tony Romo broke his collarbone and are expected to be without Romo for at least another four games. At 2-2, they’re in an NFC East race with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, but the schedule while Romo recuperates will be absolutely brutal. Next up: the Patriots in New England, where Romo’s stand-in, Brandon Weeden, figures to be far out of his depth.
That’s something Brees never has been. Not a decade ago, when his first team, the San Diego Chargers, let him get away, and certainly not now. Brees labored to throw the ball against the Cowboys, his painful shoulder not allowing him the usual free-and-easy windup, yet his final numbers – 33 completions in 41 attempts, 359 yards, the two touchdowns – were typically extraordinary.
And when Brees had to really let it go, he gritted his teeth and did it. On the Saints’ first touchdown drive, he sidestepped an immediate rush and fired a fastball to tight end Ben Watson, resulting in a 21-yard gain. Attempting to end a 20-20 stalemate late in the fourth quarter, Brees had another fastball for Willie Snead on a play that went for 17 yards. On the ensuing snap, in the final minute, he delivered a gorgeous outside-shoulder throw to Brandon Coleman with his trademark accuracy; the play went for 30 yards and set up what should’ve been a 30-yard chip-shot winner for kicker Zach Hocker. Impossibly, Hocker blew the kick.
No big deal. The Saints won the overtime coin toss, and Brees lofted a perfect pass down the right sideline to Spiller. Game over.
“It’s about time we pulled it together, got a win,” Brees said. “Hopefully, this results in many more.”
But let’s be honest again: It probably won’t.
Not because of Brees, though. Not because he’s 36. Not because he has lost his fastball. The Saints have many problems, none of which is their quarterback. Brees still is playing the game at a level to which few ever have ascended.