Drew Brees didn’t need this season to cement his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Coming into the year, he’d already thrown for more than 70,000 yards; he’d won a Super Bowl; he’d lifted the Saints from a perennial punch line to an annual playoff contender. His place in history was secure. But then he went and started on a masterpiece season anyway.
A week after knocking off the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, Brees and the Saints went on the road and hung 51 points on a Bengals team that would be the no. 6 seed in the AFC if the playoffs began today. Brees led New Orleans’s offensive charge, finishing 22-of-25 passing (with one of those incompletions coming on a throwaway) for 265 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints did whatever they pleased on offense, the same as they’ve done in virtually every game so far this season.
Watching Brees on Sunday—and throughout 2018—has been a fascinating exercise in comparing quarterback play across different eras. While Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs have piled up points and captivated fans this year, they’ve also ushered in a new era of the NFL—one when passing and points rule, and records are sure to fall season after season. But even as new royalty rolls in, the old guard is still hanging around, and those quarterbacks—Brees especially—are squeezing all they can out of the league’s passing boom.
Brees has spent the first half of this season reminding everyone that he’s not going anywhere—and so far, he’s enjoying perhaps the best year he’s ever had. Through nine games, the 39-year-old is on pace to finish with more than 4,600 passing yards and 37 touchdowns. He’s completing 77.3 percent of his passes. Let me say that again for emphasis: Drew Brees is completing 77.3 percent of his passes. That number wouldn’t just break the single-season completion record, it would demolish it.
While Mahomes tossed touchdowns and lit up scoreboards right out of the gate this season, Brees has quietly become the MVP front-runner. The Saints are 8-1 and rolling toward a first-round bye, and Brees is on his way to shattering passing efficiency records. New Orleans is averaging an absurd 36.7 points per game, the highest mark in the league, and as Brees creeps toward his 40th birthday, he’s never been better—which is almost impossible to believe. If he does win the award, which would be the first of his 18-year career, his standing in league history will become very different. And should his current level of play continue through the rest of the season, he could make a real case as the third-best quarterback to ever play the game.
Brees’s legacy will always be skewed because he played in the same era as three other generational quarterbacks. He entered the NFL in 2001, which was also Tom Brady’s first year as the Patriots starter and about the time that Peyton Manning began to light the league on fire (’01 marked his third straight 4,000-yard passing season). And Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, just two years before Aaron Rodgers took over as the Packers’ starting quarterback. Brees has played in era defined by other passers, and it’s warped the collective understanding of just how great he’s been.
This season Brees has gotten in on all the fun of this passing era, and in the process he’s served as a reminder of how different the league used to be. Guys like Brady, Rodgers, and Philip Rivers have put up big numbers in their careers, but those are nothing compared with the figures Mahomes and other young guns can notch. What’s so remarkable about Brees, then, is that he was posting explosive seasons in New Orleans even before the rules were helping him out.
From 2014 to 2016, the Saints were a massive disappointment. They finished 7-9 in three straight seasons, while coming in first, second, and first in total yards on offense. During Brees’s 13 seasons in New Orleans, the Saints have been in the top 12 by offensive DVOA every year. His unfailing consistency has made it easy to take him for granted, but we shouldn’t. Brees hasn’t had Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman to rely on during his career—his cast of pass catchers has changed virtually every season. Michael Thomas may be a star, but he’s been there for only three years. Beyond him, Brees has never played with a game-breaking wide receiver. And he’s still been able to assemble one of the best QB résumés ever.
As the Saints defense toiled as one of the worst units in league history, Brees’s numbers were seen as mostly empty calories. But that’s why the past two seasons have been so crucial to understanding his legacy. The defense has finally improved just enough to keep New Orleans in contention, and Brees hasn’t fallen off one bit. He may not have to throw 50 times a game anymore, but in the moments that the Saints do need to lean on him, he’s been as good as ever.
When this season ends, Brees will likely be ranked first all-time in career completion percentage (67.27 percent), first in passing yards, and second in total touchdown passes. He’ll (likely) have an MVP award on his shelf, and maybe even his second Super Bowl ring. This could go down as a career year for Brees, and, if it does, it will have proved that Brees deserves mention with Manning and Brady as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.