We are gathered here today to remember Drew Brees’s arm. It’s the appendage that has carried Brees through a spectacular 20-year NFL career, earning him a Super Bowl championship and the all-time records for passing yards, completions, and completion percentage. Brees’s dominance isn’t just defined by his place on all-time leaderboards, though, but rather by how many spots he occupies: He has four of the top six passing yardage seasons of all time and five of the top six completion percentage seasons. His dominance came in short bursts and prolonged excellence: He holds the record for most touchdown passes in a game and in a career. He is the greatest statistical quarterback in NFL history.
But two games into the 2020 season, it’s clear that his arm is no longer with us. His arm strength has steadily declined in recent seasons, and last year, his passes traveled shorter distances than any other NFL quarterback, with an intended air yards per target of 6.4 yards. This year, that figure is down even further, sitting at just 4.9 yards—a yard and a half per throw lower than his league-worst number from last year.
The person most acutely aware of this decline seems to be Brees. ESPN profiled Brees’s offseason attempts to maintain his arm strength back in August. But watching him play, he doesn’t seem convinced that it worked. In this clip from the Saints’ first game of the year, Brees has two open receivers downfield. Instead of throwing to one of them, though, he pump-fakes twice and settles on a dump-off pass for a loss of 2 yards.
Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus highlighted this play, calling it “the best seam-thrower of all time passing up one of the most open seam throws of his life.”
Brees resents the implication that this development will prevent the Saints from contending. “My job is to execute the offense,” Brees said after a surprising Monday night loss to the Raiders. “My job’s not to have the most air yards.” Brees was mocking anybody who would hold some silly advanced stat in his face as a sign he’s not a good quarterback. But in the past, Brees did have the most air yards.
But the statistical evidence that Brees is either unwilling or unable to throw the ball deep is overwhelming. While Brees’s trademark is clearly his historically great accuracy, he used to keep defenses honest by throwing a respectable portion of his passes downfield. Pro Football Focus has tracked quarterbacks’ deep passes (defined as passes thrown to targets more than 20 yards downfield) since 2006. That year, Brees led the league in passing yards and touchdowns on deep throws, going 32 for 58 with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’d go on to lead the league in deep throw passing yards four more times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012), completions on deep throws four times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012) and touchdowns on deep throws seven times, including six straight years from 2008 to 2013. For his career, 10.8 percent of Brees’s throws have been to targets deeper than 20 yards downfield. Last year, that fell to 8.2 percent, the lowest mark of his career and second-lowest among starting quarterbacks. (Only Jimmy Garoppolo was lower.) This year, only three of Brees’s 68 attempts have been deeper than 20 yards, a rate of 4.4 percent. He has just one completion. (So does Taysom Hill.)
In that August story about Brees’s offseason program, ESPN looked back at the QB’s career attempts to targets deeper than 35 yards downfield. They found that, from 2014 to 2017, he averaged about six completions on these throws every year. In 2017, he was 7-for-15 on such throws. In 2018, he went 1-for-8. Last year, he was 0-for-5 with an interception.
Brees’s throwing coach, Tom House, bragged to ESPN that this summer, Brees had built up his arm to the point where he was throwing the ball “57, 58 yards without even trying.” Brees used to throw the ball that deep in games. Here’s a pass from 2010 where Brees tosses the ball 57 yards to his all-time favorite deep threat, Devery Henderson:
The Saints have long thrived on the underneath passing game, but that’s always been helped by the fact that New Orleans consistently pairs Brees with a speedster who can beat defenses over the top. Henderson, who was already in New Orleans when Brees arrived, was the first. Henderson ran track at LSU and recorded a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Henderson played with the Saints until 2012, and caught six 50-plus yard touchdowns from Brees.
After Henderson, the team drafted Kenny Stills, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash. He played only two seasons with the Saints, but caught four 50-yard touchdowns from Brees.
After Stills, New Orleans used a first-round pick on Brandin Cooks, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. Cooks caught seven 50-yard touchdowns from Brees.
After Cooks, the Saints traded for Ted Ginn, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash.
There is an entire five-minute video of Brees’s 70-yard touchdown passes, many of which are bombs thrown over the top.
Now that Ginn is gone, the Saints have Emmanuel Sanders, who ran a 4.39 40-yard dash and got open over the top in last year’s Super Bowl as a member of the 49ers. But so far this season, Brees has generally ignored Sanders, who has just four catches for 37 yards.
This is not to say that Brees’s career is over, or that the Saints are doomed in 2020. Despite having the lowest average depth of target in the NFL last year, Brees thrived. He led the NFL in completion percentage, had a 27-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and helped earn the Saints a 13-3 record (8-3 in Brees’s starts) and the top seed in the NFC. Unlike previous New Orleans teams, which depended on Brees to essentially win games by himself, the Saints are constructed to win in a world where Brees can’t get the ball deep. Alvin Kamara is a destructive receiving threat out of the backfield and can turn short passes into big gains. Michael Thomas, when healthy, is so good at running slant routes that the joke is he only runs slant routes. (It’s a funny joke to everybody not routinely giving up first downs to Michael Thomas on slant routes.) And after a long stretch of finishing last or second to last in critical defensive stats, New Orleans’s defense is actually capable of winning the team games now. Brees’s arm carried this team for so long; now it’s time for the aging great to get a boost.
But the days of Brees sprinkling in an occasional shot over the top seem to be over. We must say a farewell to arms—or, at least one arm.