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The New and Familiar Expectations Facing Drew Brees

New Orleans’s star QB heads into this fall on the heels of one of his least impressive statistical seasons. Is it a sign that Brees is declining? Or is it a reflection of his uncommon ability to adapt?

Drew Brees Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By most statistical measures, Drew Brees registered one of the least impressive campaigns of his career last season. The now-39-year-old, 11-time Pro Bowler threw for 4,334 yards, nearly 900 less than he totaled in 2016. Brees finished with just 23 touchdown passes, his lowest mark since his final year with the Chargers in 2005. And even his relatively modest numbers came with caveats: According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback in the NFL had a higher percentage of his passing yards come after the catch; 21 percent of Brees’s targets didn’t pass the line of scrimmage, nearly 50 percent higher than league average.

The raw totals seem to suggest that Brees wasn’t the aerial assassin he’s been in seasons past, but that’s before taking the context for those numbers into account. And that context makes assessing the quarterback’s standing heading into this fall all the more fascinating. Ten years after his first 5,000-yard season in New Orleans and nearly a decade after he led the franchise to its only Super Bowl, the Saints are betting big on him again.

After fielding one of the league’s worst defenses for years, New Orleans took a massive leap forward on that side of the ball in 2017. It finished 10th in points allowed (20.4) a year after placing 31st in the same category. Fewer shoot-outs and more leads meant there was less of a need for Brees to sling the ball out of desperation. The Saints also had positive game scripts in 11 of their 16 regular-season matchups, and two of the negative scripts came during an 0-2 start that featured lopsided losses to the Vikings and Patriots. Game flow would have been reason enough for the team to run the ball more often, and that was aided by New Orleans producing football’s most efficient ground game. It ranked first in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA and averaged a league-best 4.7 yards per attempt. Rookie Alvin Kamara’s 6.1-yards-per-carry clip boosted that figure.

For the first time in a while, the Saints asked Brees to do less, and that formula should continue into this season. Slight regression is to be expected among a defense that took a colossal jump last year, but the Saints’ influx of excellent young talent from the 2017 draft (headlined by defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams) points to that unit’s improvement being more than a statistical blip. And although running back Mark Ingram will miss the first four games of this season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Kamara will be around to shoulder a considerable load, both as a runner and as a physics-defying receiver. Handing Brees the league’s most exciting young playmaker feels like a cheat code.

Brees being asked to carry less of the burden at this point in his career represents somewhat odd timing. Yes, he’s inching toward 40, but 2018 should be the season that his prolific passing stretch pays off in the biggest possible way. He enters this fall just 1,495 yards behind Peyton Manning on the NFL’s all-time passing list. Even with his diminished volume, he should hit that mark before Halloween. With 488 career touchdown passes, Brees trails Manning by only 51 in that category, too, and while he almost certainly won’t break Peyton’s record this season, he should get there with two more pedestrian campaigns by his standards.

Two years also happens to span the length of the $50 million deal that Brees signed with New Orleans in March. After a brief (and probably misguided) period when it felt as though the Saints might let him test free agency, New Orleans locked up the future Hall of Famer for what could be the final two seasons of his illustrious career. The organization is going all in on the context: With their championship window wide open, the Saints believe Brees is still the ideal quarterback to guide them to the top.

Brees’s methodical greatness has long made him easy to take for granted. Season after season of 5,000-plus passing yards and 40-plus touchdowns has made the numbers run together. But let’s go back to his first 5,000-yard campaign in 2008. By throwing for a whopping 5,069 yards, he racked up what was then the second-highest single-season total in league history, and reached the 5,000-yard plateau for the first time since Dan Marino did it 24 years earlier. Quarterbacks hitting 5K may now seem like old hat, but it’s happened only nine times in league history. Brees accounts for five of those instances. A 5,000-yard season feels like the new standard of statistical greatness only because Brees made it so, and he’s the only QB to pass that total twice.

Drew Brees
Drew Brees
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Raw totals can sometimes be misleading in a sports world obsessed with efficiency. Yet while Brees’s gaudy yardage totals have often come via a league-high number of attempts, it’s not as though they’ve been empty calories. When Brees threw for 5,069 yards in 2008, the Saints finished third in passing DVOA. The offense has continued to shine in that metric in the following seasons. Over the past 10 campaigns, the Saints have finished outside the top 10 in passing DVOA only once, in 2010. They ranked 12th. New Orleans has been content to let Brees drop back and sling it because it’s been the most reliable way to stay competitive.

The same level of remarkable consistency applies to Brees’s completion-percentage numbers. His only season since 2008 in which he posted a percentage lower than 65 came amid a turnover-plagued 2012. He’s hit 68 percent in every other season since 2008, and he’s topped 70 percent on four separate occasions. Brees remains the only QB in NFL history to complete at least two-thirds of his passes over his entire career.

Skeptics will point to Brees’s growing reputation as a checkdown artist, but that explanation isn’t entirely fair. Brees relied on a heavy diet of screens and throws to backs in 2017 (179 of his 536 attempts were to backs), but he also orchestrated one of the most efficient downfield passing attacks in the NFL. Brees may have ranked 19th by the percentage of his passes to travel at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, but he tied for fourth in the number of completions on such throws. Only Alex Smith (56.5 percent) was ahead of Brees (52.5) in deep-ball accuracy. Last season marked the eighth time in the past 10 years that Brees has finished fourth or higher in that category, reinforcing the notion that no matter what types of throws he’s unleashing, Brees is the most accurate quarterback in the NFL.

That, more than anything else, is the enduring reason Brees remains the perfect player to pilot the Saints’ offense, even when he’s asked to do less. Accuracy on short throws and screens may seem like a given for an NFL quarterback, but that simply isn’t the case. Brees finished the 2017 season with an adjusted completion percentage of 98 on throws behind the line of scrimmage—4 percentage points higher than the league average—and consistently gave Kamara and Ingram opportunities to run wild after the catch. Kamara finished his rookie year with a 1.6 YAC+ (a metric that measures how many yards after the catch a player gains compared with the leaguewide average on similar throws), 14th highest in the league.

New Orleans also used its newfound rushing dominance to implement considerably more play-action concepts. After three straight seasons of using play-action on less than 20 percent of his targets, Brees finished at 20.6 percent in 2017, with a 106.7 rating on such throws. That’s not a huge uptick from his 103.9 overall quarterback rating last fall, but it represents another element that Brees was able to add to his arsenal seamlessly.

And therein lies the key to taking stock of Brees going into his final chapter with the Saints. With Kamara, Ingram, Michael Thomas, Cam Meredith, and one of the league’s best offensive lines, Brees boasts a supporting cast that rivals any he’s had since arriving in New Orleans. The Saints’ varied and ultratalented collection of skill-position players gives their offense a level of flexibility that Brees has never previously experienced. And that flexibility is possible only through the level of malleability inherent in—and unique to—Brees’s game.