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The Case for Drew Brees As the Quarterback GOAT

Brees became the NFL’s career leader in passing yardage on Monday. He also holds the record for completions and could soon set the record for touchdowns. In an era with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, it’s worth asking: Where does Brees rank in the all-time QB pantheon?

Elias Stein/Getty

Saints quarterback Drew Brees set the NFL career record for passing yardage in a 43-19 win over Washington, surpassing Peyton Manning’s mark of 71,940 and bringing Monday Night Football to a screeching halt. (The celebration was pre-planned yet still somehow drew a flag from officials.) Just two weeks earlier, Brees broke Brett Favre’s record for passing completions. The 39-year-old Brees, who also holds the record for highest career completion percentage (67.2) among qualified passers, has shown few signs of slowing. He’ll likely extend his yards and completions records by quite a bit—and, given another season, will probably tack on the passing touchdowns record for good measure. (He’s at 499; Manning tops the list at 539.) If somebody were to glance at football’s record books with no prior knowledge of the sport, that person would almost certainly come away with the impression that Brees is the greatest quarterback in history.

But relatively few football fans share that opinion. Most fans would tell you that the quarterback GOAT is Tom Brady, who’s won five Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Some would make the case for Manning, who took two different franchises to Super Bowls and recorded some of the greatest statistical seasons in the sport’s history. A great way to earn football cred is to argue that Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback ever, even though he has only one ring. Joe Montana and his four rings are a quality old-school greatest-ever choice.

In spite of his remarkable accomplishments, Brees’s name simply doesn’t come up in these conversations. USA Today published a list of the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterbacks in February and put Brees at no. 11 (behind Otto Graham!). Sports Illustrated left Brees off a top-10 all-time QBs list in October 2017. (Again, behind Otto Graham! Who knew there was so many Otto Graham heads?) ESPN’s John Clayton didn’t even rank Brees among his top 15 quarterbacks ever. (Otto Graham: no. 5. You just can’t go anywhere these days without people wanting to talk about the 1949 Cleveland Browns.) Brees has never even been named MVP.

When Adam Vinatieri broke the NFL career field goals record a few weeks ago, we argued that he was the greatest kicker of all time, and nobody got mad. Sure, there’s less online debate around kickers than quarterbacks, but in Vinatieri’s case the stats made the case plain. We can’t do the same with quarterbacks, whose legacies are tied up in so much more than numbers.

Is there a case for Brees as the greatest quarterback of all time? And if so, what does it look like?

He’s Been the Most Consistent QB Ever

Brees’s first season with the Saints came in 2006, on the heels of his four-year stint with a Chargers franchise that once benched him for Doug Flutie and later ditched him to build around Philip Rivers. Brees has now played 13 seasons in New Orleans and led the league in a major statistical category (passing yardage, completion percentage, passing touchdowns, or QB rating) in 12 of them. The one season he didn’t was in 2013: He threw for 5,162 yards, the sixth-highest total of all time.

Brees has never had a bad season with the Saints. You could point to 2012, the lone campaign in which he tied for the league lead in interceptions. Then again, he also led the NFL with 43 passing touchdowns that year.

Compare this to Brady, who’s had 10 seasons in which he failed to lead the league in any of those statistical categories (excluding 2000, the year that he was a backup, and 2008, the year he got injured in Week 1). Manning failed to lead the league in any of those stats nine times (also excluding seasons lost to injury); Rodgers, meanwhile, has led the league in one of those categories just three times in his 11 years as a starter.

There have been nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in the history of the NFL. Brees has five of them. (Matthew Stafford has one, which might invalidate the achievement for you.) Extraordinary, league-shattering numbers are the norm for Brees, even as he approaches his 40s.

He’s Done the Most With the Least

Brees has won one Super Bowl, following the 2009 season, a triumph that probably makes him the most popular man in the history of New Orleans. (Keep an eye out for my follow-up article, “The Case For Lil Wayne As the Most Popular Louisianan of All Time,” in which I’ll discuss how Weezy’s stats [albums sold, Grammys] put him ahead of Louis Armstrong.) In the GOAT debate, however, Brees is up against guys with fistfuls of jewelry.

But Lombardi trophies aren’t handed out to individuals. This is a team sport, and Brees’s teams haven’t been particularly good. Since the QB arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have produced three top-10 scoring defenses, finishing seventh in points allowed in 2010, fourth in 2013, and 10th last year. They’ve had nine defenses ranked 20th or worse. In 2012 and 2016, the Saints finished second to last in scoring defense; in 2015, they were dead last. (The Chargers also finished 31st in 2003, one of Brees’s seasons as the starter in San Diego.)

No other quarterback in the GOAT conversation has dealt with defenses remotely this bad. Brady’s Patriots have notched 11 top-10 scoring defenses during his time in New England. The Pats led the league in scoring defense outright in 2003 and 2016 and, unsurprisingly, won the Super Bowl in both of those seasons. Brady has never played alongside a defense that’s finished worse than 20th in points allowed, let alone 31st or 32nd. Manning’s Colts tallied five top-10 defenses between 2002 and 2009; his Broncos boasted top-10 defenses in three of the four years he played in Denver, leading the league in 2015. Get this: They won the Super Bowl that season. The 49ers had top-10 defenses in nine of the 10 seasons Montana played quarterback there, leading the league in 1984—a campaign capped by a Super Bowl win. Rodgers’s Packers have never led the NFL in scoring defense but did finish second in 2010. You guessed it: That’s the season he won a ring.

Brees’s Saints finished 20th in scoring defense the season they won the Super Bowl. Not first, not second, not fifth. Twentieth. The Saints’ only notable defensive accomplishment to happen during Brees’s tenure was Bountygate. This is the sort of stuff that has happened to New Orleans defenses during the Brees era:

It is not Brees’s fault that his defense tackled air instead of preventing Case Keenum from becoming a hero.

To be fair, there is some correlation between Brees’s statistical greatness and the Saints’ track record of bad defense. Brees has long needed to keep passing all game long, because he’s needed to continue scoring to offset all the points allowed by New Orleans’s awful defenses. And his defenses have sometimes allowed points because Brees and the offense have scored too quickly, not affording defenders a chance to rest. The Bradys and Mannings have often been able to relax in fourth quarters while running out the clock; Brees has been forced to keep accumulating yardage out of necessity.

On the flip side, though, Brees has never played with a Hall of Fame–caliber wide receiver. Brady got Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski; Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Meanwhile, no Saints wide receiver made the Pro Bowl during Brees’s tenure until last season, when Michael Thomas did. (Tight end Jimmy Graham was sent to Hawaii, or wherever the Pro Bowl is played these days, three times.) Beyond Graham and Thomas, Brees’s leading receivers in New Orleans have been Marques Colston (best remembered for that one incredible season when he had fantasy tight end eligibility), Lance Moore, Kenny Stills, and Brandin Cooks—guys who will have to pay the full price of admission in Canton.

This is why it’s stunning that Brees has never won MVP. None of the other QBs who have received the award ahead of him have been as individually responsible for their team’s success. If the award truly went to the most valuable player, it would have gone to Brees multiple times.

He’s Unparalleled As a Pure Passer

My favorite Brees tidbit is that his receivers usually can’t see the QB as he’s throwing to them. The ball just shows up, unexpected, right in between the numbers on their uniform. “I would just see the ball come out of a pile of folks,” Colston told ESPN. The ball would “emerge from nowhere and hit [receivers] in the hands,” Tim Layden wrote for SI. “[Brees], like, literally throws the ball to your hands like you don’t have no choice but to catch it,” current Saints running back Alvin Kamara said.

Brees has never made sense as an all-world quarterback. He is small, 6-foot-nothing, and years of conventional NFL wisdom have taught us that height is the most important factor in determining who can be an effective quarterback. (My GOAT pick? Gheorghe Muresan or Brock Osweiler.) Most prominent college programs passed on him as a recruit, despite his winning a high school state championship in Texas. And despite throwing for more than 11,000 yards with 90 touchdowns at Purdue, he fell to the second round of the 2001 NFL draft. He has a surgically repaired shoulder, which is why the Dolphins passed on him in 2005 free agency. (This piece is as good a reason as any to remind everybody that the Dolphins really chose to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead of signing Brees.)

But Brees’s height and shoulder surgery never mattered, because he is the best pure passer the sport has ever seen. He isn’t very mobile, and his arm has never been the strongest in the league. But he is unflinchingly accurate.

Brees’s accuracy has been revolutionary. For nearly two decades, he’s averaged a first down per completion while completing two-thirds of his passing attempts. Do the math on that, and you’ll discover that running is basically pointless. Perhaps more than anybody else, Brees has ushered the league into the modern age, where the pass is prioritized over the run.

My enduring memory of Brees won’t be of any booming pass or critical late-game play. His greatness lies in his steadiness: He has been impossibly consistent and impossibly accurate. Those aren’t highlight traits. He has made excellence seem routine. Perhaps that’s why his greatness isn’t as appreciated as he deserves.