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Part 1: The Ballad of Drew Brees

Part 1 of a tribute to the recently crowned all-time passing leader

And now for a brief tribute to the NFL’s all-time leading passer…

Drew Christopher Brees was born January 15, 1979 in Austin, Texas. After a distinguished passing career at Westlake High School, he accepted a scholarship offer from Purdue, starting for three years from 1998-2000. The San Diego Chargers drafted him in 2001 with the 32nd overall pick. Brees sat on the bench his first year before taking over in 2002, having a fine if not spectacular season.

But the important part of the story, for our purposes, begins here. After Brees, rather than taking the expected improvements, had a poor third season with the Chargers, they opted to draft Eli Manning at the top of the draft (eventually trading him to the Giants for Philip Rivers), seemingly setting the course for Brees ot go back to the bench and leave San Diego.

And then Brees had a Pro Bowl season in 2004, and one nearly as good in 2005, and Rivers didn’t get a single start ahead of him. It looked like Bres had reestablished himself and would either get an enormous new contract from the Chargers or would break the bank in free agency.

And then, in a meaningless week 17 game, Brees was hit while he was on the ground and tore his labrum. Suddenly the prize of the free-agent class had questions as to whether he would ever play again.

2005 was a disastrous year for the city of New Orleans and the Saints as well. Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in what should have been unfathomable ways in 21st-century America. (Thirteen years hence, others have said what needs to be said about the city far better than I can, so I’ll stick with talking about the impact on the Saints.) The Saints themselves were displaced, having to play their home games in a combination of LSU’s Tiger Stadium and San Antonio’s Alamodome, which was not only a harsh disadvantage for the team but also demoralizing for fans, as it revived the notion that Tom Benson might still be interested in moving the team to San Antonio.

The Saints went 3-13 in 2005, landing the #2 pick in the draft. After the season, they fired coach Jim Haslett, opting for a fresh start. Benson (under some pressure from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) kept the team in New Orleans. The team, and the city, needed to rebuild.

And it it took the perfect aligning of the stars for it to happen. To bring a number of second choices and plan Bs together to New Orleans:

  • The Chargers already chose Rivers over Brees; it then happened again in free agency, with the Miami Dolphins’ team doctors deciding the chance of Brees recovering properly from his shoulder injury was too low to take the risk, and trading for Daunte Culpe
  • The Saints, then, weren’t Brees’ first choice, either; at the time, the Dolphins, with Nick Saban as head coach, coming of a 9-7 season, and not having been displaced from their hometown amidst uncertainty about their future, were considered the better situation for a quarterback. The Saints and Brees struck a deal almost immediately after the Dolphins’ trade for Culpepper was announced.
  • Speaking of that uncertainty, it’s still unclear that New Orleans was Tom Benson’s first choice for the team, or if he’d have preferred to move to San Antonio. It’s long been believed Tagliabue’s pressure was the major factor in keeping the team in New Orleans.

Brees signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the Saints, and had this to say:

I just felt that energy in New Orleans. From the very beginning there was a genuine feeling that they wanted me there. They believe I can come back from this shoulder injury and lead them to a championship. They were as confident as I am, and that meant a lot.

Brees immediately delivered the best season in Saints history in 2006, winning the team’s first-ever first-round bye, and their second-ever playoff game (the first being in 2000 under Jim Haslett), bringing them to their first NFC Championship game. They lost to the Bears, but it was clear that the Saints would be a contender for as long as Brees and Payton stayed together.

The team slid back the next year, finishing 7-9, while continuing to build. In 2008, the team performed substantially better, but a number of close losses and a difficult division left them at 8-8 and in last place in the South.

Then in 2009, it all came together. An opportunistic defense started generating huge plays. The offense was a steady and unstoppable machine. The Saints took their play along with a bit of luck to cruise to a 13-0 start; they would lose their last three games, but preserved their top seed in the NFC, to remain at home for the playoffs.

Famously, with time running out in regulation in the NFC Championship Game, with the game tied and the Minnesota Vikings in field-goal range, Brett Favre inexplicably threw an across-the-field ball that was intercepted and sent the game to overtime. The Saints never gave up possession again, even converting a critical fourth down on the drive that sealed the game with a field goal.

Despite being five-point underdogs to the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl, and despite falling behind 10-0, New Orleans staged a comeback in the second half, kicked off (literally) by Thomas Morstead’s surprise onside kick, which led to a go-ahead Drew Brees touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. The Colts regained the lead, but then Brees found Jeremy Shockey for the go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter, and Lance Moore in the end zone on the two-point conversion, a famously close play that was ruled incomplete and needed a replay challenge to count.

And then, as the Colts drove to try to tie the game, Tracy Porter jumped Reggie Wayne’s route on a third-down pass, having been tipped off to the Colts’ bread-and-butter third-down play rom film study, and ran it in for a score that would complete the 31-17 final.

Brees and the Saints had that confidence and belief in each other established nearly four years ago rewarded. New Orleans had its first world championship.

The team has not gotten back to those heights yet, despite some excellent teams– 2011, 2013, and 2017 most notably– that were all Super Bowl contenders but all lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. (The 2010 team, more ignominiously, lost an opening playoff game to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, in the playoffs by virtue of winning an incredibly weak NFC West.)

Even when Brees has languished on mediocre teams brought down by poor defense– 2012 and 2016 are the most notable in this regard– he has continued to perform to astonishing heights. He has led the NFL in passing seven times. He has five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history; no one else has more than one. His 5,476 yards in 2011 set a new NFL record until Peyton Manning broke the mark by one yard. He’s broken the single-season completion percentage record three times and holds the all-time record.

After the level of the 2017 team’s performance, and the addition of some more key pieces through the draft, the team is looking to once again contend for a Super Bowl, and just may be able to send Brees off with at least one more ring when he eventually retires. Hopefully that day doesn’t come too soon.

Click here for part two of the tribute to Drew Brees: The all-time Brees-era Saints offense.

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