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Drew Brees Has Always Fixed Everything for the Saints. What Will They Do With Him Injured?

The all-time passing yardage leader left Sunday’s matchup against the Rams with a thumb injury that will require surgery and will sideline him for nearly half the season

New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Years ago, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer was out late at night on a weekday with a Saints coach in New Orleans. The coach realized he had forgotten something at the team facility and they went back to get it. When they arrived, they saw the lights were still on in one of the rooms, as relayed in a story by Robert Klemko for Sports Illustrated. They found Drew Brees in there watching film. Glazer asked Brees why he was still there.

“Sometimes trying to be great is lonely,” Brees said.

Brees may have been lonelier than ever watching the Saints offense from the sideline on Sunday. The Saints fell to the Los Angeles Rams 27-9 in the rematch of last season’s infamous NFC championship game. Another botched refereeing decision took a huge Saints play off the board, but the game was overshadowed by the thumb injury Brees sustained when Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s hand hit the quarterback’s hand on a throw.

Brees left the game after completing just three of five pass attempts for 38 yards and one interception. Saints head coach Sean Payton told Fox’s Erin Andrews that Brees “just simply couldn’t grip the ball” after the thumb injury. After the game, Payton said that Brees was in pain throwing the ball and that his injury “wasn’t anything elaborate,” but after the quarterback saw a hand specialist on Monday, it was reported that Brees would undergo thumb surgery and miss “approximately six weeks.”

New Orleans’s offense unraveled without the NFL’s all-time leading passer. The offense managed just 244 yards on 57 plays (4.3 yards per play) and backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater replaced Brees to little effect with 17 completions on 30 pass attempts for 165 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and one fumble, which was recovered by New Orleans. It’s the second-fewest passing yards the Saints have had in a loss since 2013 and the first game in which New Orleans’s offense did not have a touchdown since December of 2016—and just the fourth time in the Brees-Payton era. By the final third of the game, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had figured out how to attack Bridgewater in the pocket, best exemplified by Rams linebacker Clay Matthews leveling Bridgewater in the third quarter.

New Orleans’s offense was inept but their defense was excellent. The Saints held the Rams offense to just six points midway through the third quarter, had two successful red zone stands, and stymied Rams quarterback Jared Goff for most of the contest. They also forced a strip of Goff that defensive end Cameron Jordan returned for a touchdown, but the play was blown dead as an incompletion, though replays clearly showed it was a fumble.

The Saints were awarded possession after a challenge but given the ball at the spot of Jordan’s recovery, 87 yards from the end zone. They ended up turning it over on downs. If the final score had been remotely close, this play would have made Saints fans apoplectic. But the score was not close. The Rams poured on 21 points in the final 20 minutes, turning a tied game into a late blowout. It’s disappointing for Saints fans considering the team has been so great on offense that they’ve usually needed their defense to be only competent to compete. Since 2006, New Orleans has been in the top five of passing yards 11 times and made the playoffs every season their defense was in the top three quarters of the league in efficiency. That’s been especially true the past two seasons, when New Orleans has looked like the class of the NFC: The defense was no. 8 in defensive efficiency in 2017 and no. 11 in efficiency in 2018, according to Football Outsiders. But now, if Brees remains out for an extended period, the offense could be in trouble. New Orleans’s defenders understand this, especially after sloppy tackling allowed the Rams’ one-touchdown lead to snowball into a three-touchdown one.

”We have to turn this loss into a lesson fast,” Jordan told reporters after the game.

The immediate lesson is that the New Orleans offense that has destroyed the league is ineffective without Brees. Brees is like a point guard who creates spacing on a basketball court. He uses his feet to shape the pocket and buy time by effortlessly eluding edge rushers; he uses his eyes to look off secondary defenders; he has the vision to see anyone who gets open, and the accuracy to find them no matter how small or fleeting the window. That combination is why New Orleans leads the league in pass attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and passing touchdowns since Brees teamed up with Payton in 2006.

As Brees has aged—he is 40, after all—he’s compensated for weakening arm strength by becoming a pinpoint passer who led the league in completion percentage above expected last year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s tough for any quarterback to replicate. New Orleans sent a third-round pick to New York last year for Bridgewater to be Brees’s backup and then signed Bridgewater for $7.3 million for 2019, but replacing Brees’s legendary production is not a reasonable expectation for Bridgewater, even when he begins practicing with the starting offense with Brees sidelined. Bridgewater has also been anything but reliably able to stay on the field in his career, and New Orleans was not exactly cautious with third-string quarterback Taysom Hill after Brees’s injury. Hill was used as a wide receiver/tight end hybrid lined up on the outside of trips sets and caught two passes for 16 yards. Hill could be a much bigger part of the Saints offense if Brees misses any time, but would also be pressed into one of the strangest NFL situations in decades if Bridgewater were to miss time too.

It’s not just the passing game that’s impacted by Brees’s absence. Without the spacing created by Brees, the Saints had no running lanes. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray combined for 52 rushing yards on 18 carries (2.9 yards per attempt). That’s particularly concerning since the Saints have transitioned into becoming a running team as Brees has aged.

Sunday’s game raised serious concerns about how New Orleans’s offense will function without Brees, whom New Orleans has never had to play without for an extended period under Payton. Brees has missed just three games in his 14-year Saints career and only one of those was injury-related (the other two were in Week 17 games). Brees ended up in New Orleans because the Chargers were concerned about his long-term health back in 2005, and he’s been close to Iron Man ever since. Like Robert Downey Jr., Brees revived his career more than a decade ago with an enterprise few believed could be so successful. Now we’ll see if, like Iron Man, Brees will be phased out in 2019. It’s lonely being a hero, but it can be even lonelier when you’re a hero who can’t use your powers to help anyone.

This piece was updated at 11:10 a.m. ET on September 16 with additional information after publication.