If recent reports are to be believed, that’s a wrap for Drew Brees’s career. That.
The Saints lost to the Buccaneers 30-20 on Sunday night, and Brees put on a performance that made you feel every one of his 42 years of age. He couldn’t push the ball downfield, couldn’t get the Saints offense moving whatsoever, and finished with one of the worst stat lines of his career: 19 of 34 for 134 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, but his potential final game—the final few years of his career, really—will be remembered for missed opportunities and postseason heartbreak.
Sunday marked Brees’s first postseason outing with three interceptions, and his first three-interception game of any kind since 2016. On his first pick of the night, Brees backpedaled in the pocket to avoid pressure and then floated a ball toward Michael Thomas, who was just a couple of yards past the line of scrimmage. But Brees left it short, and it ended up in the hands of Sean Murphy-Bunting. It’s just an ugly throw:
Brees’s second interception had more velocity, as he attempted to rifle a pass to Alvin Kamara in the fourth quarter. This one went right to Devin White:
His final interception was tipped, but the throw was behind tight end Jared Cook. It was another indicator that Brees just isn’t able to consistently fit the ball into tight passing windows anymore:
Unfortunately for Saints fans, this game was not a one-off failure. The writing has been on the wall all season. Brees’s arm strength has been waning for some time, and it recently became clear that while the Saints could still field an efficient and effective offense just by feeding the football to some of the team’s excellent playmakers, Brees’s limitations were holding the squad back. On Sunday, Brees did not attempt a single pass that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, and it was backup QB Jameis Winston who threw the Saints’ lone deep pass of the night.
Brees is arguably the most statistically accomplished quarterback ever. He is the league’s all-time passing yards leader—though Tom Brady may steal that from him soon, as Brady is just 1,154 yards behind Brees and looks like he could play until age 50. Brees led the Saints to the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory after the 2009 season and beat the Peyton Manning–led Colts with a sterling performance in which he completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. He led the league in passing yards seven different times, in passing touchdowns four times, and in completion percentage six times. He is without doubt an all-time great.
It’s been absolutely remarkable to watch the 6-foot tall quarterback that the Chargers gave up on in 2006 go on to become the most-relied-upon passer in the league for more than a decade. Brees has regularly led the league in pass attempts, as Sean Payton built an ahead-of-its-time offense around Brees’s arm. Many of those teams had poor defenses and average-at-best pass catchers—but Brees’s preternatural accuracy and ability to chuck the ball all over the yard made those offenses elite. There were some down seasons, but New Orleans never went worse than 7-9 with Brees behind center, and he regularly put them in the postseason. It’s stunning that Brees never won MVP, but look back at history and you’ll see all his greatest seasons came at the same time as those of other quarterbacks—Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, et al. Brees never winning MVP is like Leonardo DiCaprio before he won an Oscar; it wasn’t due to lack of talent, just poor timing.
After a trio of seven-win seasons from 2014 to 2016, New Orleans roared back to relevancy, thanks to some incredible draft classes that helped the team build one of the best rosters in football. Those years, the Saints did some carrying of Brees. After throwing a league-leading 673 pass attempts in 2016, Brees had 536 in 2017 and never cracked 500 in the three seasons thereafter. With a revitalized ground game, resurgent defense, and better playmakers, Brees didn’t have to throw the ball like that anymore. He was still plenty effective—2018 and 2019 were his two best seasons ever in adjusted net yards per attempt—but no longer needed to be the pure volume passer he was in his prime. The Saints have won at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons, and looked poised for another Super Bowl run. But they ran into postseason heartbreak in four consecutive seasons.
First, it was the Minneapolis Miracle, the Stefon Diggs–powered Hail Mary that stunned New Orleans and ripped away what looked like a sure victory in the 2017 divisional round. The next year, the Rams advanced thanks to one of the worst blown calls ever—a missed pass interference so egregious that it briefly prompted the league to rewrite the rule book—in the NFC championship game. And then last season in the wild-card round, the Saints lost to the Vikings—again—on another missed pass interference call.
This game did not feature one single inflection point that led to a loss, but that is perhaps even more cruel. Drew Brees went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.