No active player has thrown more touchdown passes than Drew Brees. He throws them when his teams are good—he led the NFL in touchdowns during New Orleans’s 2009 Super Bowl season—and he throws them when his teams are bad, like when he led the league in 2012 on a 7-9 Saints team. He has already broken the record for career passing yards and will almost certainly break Peyton Manning’s touchdown record next year. (He’s 19 behind Manning’s 539; Tom Brady, at 517 touchdowns, might also break Manning’s mark.) Brees has thrown touchdowns to 66 different players—17 more than Manning and five more than Brett Favre. He has 32 touchdown passes this season while leading New Orleans to the no. 1 seed in the NFC. The Saints host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in the divisional round, and are the favorite to win the Super Bowl. On his list of career touchdown targets, you’ll find stars like Marques Colston (72 TDs), Jimmy Graham (51 TDs), and current teammate Michael Thomas (23). There are also lesser-known players on that list, to whom Brees has thrown just a single touchdown pass. It’s in that group that Brees’s brilliance reveals itself.
The best way to understand how Brees creates offense is through the experiences of the players who caught one touchdown pass from him. They are the Moonlight Grahams in the story of Brees’s historic career, appearing as one name on a long list, many of whom are now living normal lives away from football, and speaking to the longevity of Brees’s excellence. Some work as high school coaches, others as real estate agents or personal trainers, while some are still trying to play in the NFL. Many of them have remarkably similar stories about the time they didn’t think the football was coming their way, and when it did, they were in the end zone.
“Not to make light of it but I was at the right place at the right time,” said Darnell Dinkins, a tight end on the Saints in 2009, who scored a 2-yard touchdown against the New England Patriots. “He makes our job easy. All you have to do is follow the assignments.”
Austin Johnson scored the only touchdown of his career in October 2014 on a 13-yard pass from Brees against the Detroit Lions. He was roasted by his teammates afterward for his celebration, but he said his reaction was due to the “pure shock” of Brees even passing to him. Johnson was a fullback on a play that was supposed to be a simple run.
“I’m saying ‘OK, time to go kill this linebacker on a run.’ So when he got to the line and checked to a pass I’m saying, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m going to be open, and he’s going to throw it to me,’” Johnson said. “It was a shocker. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it was my play.”
Dinkins, for his part, was supposed to get hit at the line of scrimmage while taking on a linebacker. He was not supposed to get through the defense unscathed and catch a pass. Patriots linebackers, who were known to be particularly aggressive at the goal line, bit on a play fake and Dinkins was able to slip around them. Brees adapted in a split-second when he realized Dinkins was not only going to be a receiver instead of a blocker but that he’d be open. “I was able to be a part of something that was way bigger than Darnell Dinkins,” he said.
Nick Toon’s touchdown in 2014 was the only score of his career. He stepped away from football two years ago at age 28 after being released by the Rams, and now sells real estate in Scottsdale, Arizona. His touchdown was no fluke—he simply made defenders miss on an 11-yard reception in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It was fun. It would’ve been nice to have a couple of more,” Toon said. “It’s definitely an accomplishment and something I’ll remember forever. It’s a really cool thing to be a very small part in.”
But with Brees, it’s the small things that created the big things.
Brees makes the unexpected appear normal because he practices it. Johnson said that when Brees releases a pass in practice, he continues with his progressions, reading the second, third, and fourth progression as he visualizes what would have happened had he made a different throw. No one, Johnson said, takes plays off because Brees will come to them eventually.
Freddie Jones was the first person to find this out, and not the last. He caught his one touchdown from Brees in 2001 when they played together in San Diego, which happened to be the first touchdown of Brees’s career. “The one thing I’d say about that touchdown is I think a lot of quarterbacks get into trouble when they have one guy they want to force the ball to,” he said. “What Drew did from day one is he took coaching and really went through his progressions and where the ball needed to go, it was going to go.”
Jones said he was not among the first progressions on his scoring play, a 20-yard reception in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. “It just so happened that the coverage opened up where I was, and he put the ball where it needed to be,” Jones said. “That’s probably the biggest positive of his career and why so many guys have been involved in the passing game. He’s not forcing the ball to the Pro Bowl tight end or star wide receiver—he’s going to go through what he needs and what coverage allows him to do.”
Jones, now athletic director of Shelton School in Dallas, thinks Brees’s confidence allows him to stay in the pocket and read the whole field, something a lot of quarterbacks struggle with, especially if they want to avoid the rush (Brees does both). He also thinks New Orleans coach Sean Payton doesn’t make Brees force it to star playmakers. “A lot of coaches push you in that direction, ‘You gotta throw it over there and see what happens’ and Sean and Drew don’t do that.”
Brees combines an otherworldly ability to read a defense with incredible accuracy. One year, Johnson was tasked almost exclusively with studying pass protections. It was his job to know every blitz. He thought he knew them well. Brees did too, and picked up on them faster. “Drew would just walk over to me before the play and tell me who was blitzing and I hadn’t even looked yet. He’d just say ‘Strong safety dog coming off the edge’ then go back. He was in full command of everyone.”
Dinkins said Brees’s teammates had to become experts at “holding your water” because of how often Brees would try to elongate the snap count as he looked for a hint of the opposing team’s blitz. If a team showed their hand, he would reset the play if it was warranted. Crucially, he knew where to put the ball and had the accuracy to do so. “It wasn’t about changing the route at the line—it was about ball placement. He has an ability to throw into space that I have never seen in my life,” Dinkins said. “I tell people when I’m talking about Saints receivers: It doesn’t matter how much money they offer you, stay in New Orleans, because no one is ever Drew Brees.” Dinkins, 41, is a trainer in Pennsylvania. He said that he often tells stories to young quarterbacks about Brees’s work ethic.
“I felt like I was letting Drew down if I didn’t know my assignment,” Dinkins said. One of the keys to Brees’s success is that he is constantly capable of delivering a pass when a receiver is not expecting one to come his way. You always jump higher, Dinkins thinks, or run crisper routes.
“I think when you see that approach work, it becomes contagious because they see the results,” said Nick Hardwick, Brees’s former center with the Chargers.
Dinkins saw Brees throw a bad pass once. It was against the Redskins. “Well, maybe it wasn’t even a bad ball, but it was a pass intended for Robert Meachem that was intercepted,” Dinkins said. “But Meachem chased him down and it ended in a strip sack and a touchdown run back. That’s the way Brees is blessed.”
When Brees broke the passing record, he sent 174 footballs to teammates who contributed to the record. Jones’s is on a shelf. “He let us in on his dream. He let us in on celebrating the record,” Jones said. “Just like he let us in the offense.”
Johnson, who was in camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until a wrist injury led to his release, wants to keep playing and is hopeful of joining a team for spring or summer offseason programs. He’s one of the few in the one-touchdown club who isn’t retired. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Johnson was either signed or removed from either the Saints roster or their practice squad in 15 separate transactions from 2013 until 2016. He said he kept going because he loves football, and believes he’s playing well and wants to return now that his wrist injury is healed. “I want to quit when I see myself fading, and I haven’t seen that yet,” Johnson said. “My family supports whatever decision I make. I’m single, so I don’t have a family of my own, so I felt like I wasn’t dragging anyone else through my turmoils, or dragging anyone when I bounce around from no job to a job. It’s kind of me dealing with it.”
He said that being around a player like Brees taught him how to be an ultimate professional and deal with anything. He also thinks catching a touchdown from him is incredibly cool. “People ask ‘What is Drew Brees like?’ And it’s easy to say, ‘What you think he is, is exactly what he is,’ but that’s it. I was a guy who was on and off the roster. We never knew my future with the team and he never treated me differently.”
To the contrary: He threw him the ball, like every other Saints player.