Somewhere in between, the Saints—in need of as much positive PR as any team in recent memory—might actually decide to give quarterback Drew Brees the long-term contract he deserves. Brees, 33, is still in the prime of his career, and yet the calendar has reached June with no deal in sight.
To avoid allowing Brees to enter free agency, the Saints designated him with an exclusive-rights franchise tag, though he has yet to sign the tender, and the two sides have been unable to negotiate a long-term deal.
With all that’s gone wrong for New Orleans this offseason, including season-long suspensions for coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, you would think signing its best player to a large contract would have been a priority.
Instead, the snub can be considered par for the course for Brees—the NFL’s most underappreciated quarterback.
The Short Are Often Overshadowed
Standing barely 6'0", Brees is used to being overshadowed in his career.
Despite setting numerous Big Ten records at Purdue, Brees fell to San Diego with the first pick of the second round in the 2001 NFL draft.
After a mediocre first season as a starter in 2002, Brees regressed in 2003 and was benched five games in favor of 41-year-old Doug Flutie. Upon his return, Brees passed for a then-career-high 363 yards against Green Bay, but the Chargers finished a disappointing 4-12.
After three seasons and 27 starts, the Chargers appeared ready to move on from Brees, and after pulling off a huge draft-day trade with the New York Giants, it was now Philip Rivers assuming the role of franchise quarterback in San Diego.
However, a long holdout by Rivers allowed Brees to be firmly entrenched as starting quarterback for the 2004 season.
Some players just need one more opportunity, and Brees took advantage like few players have ever done before. He led the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, and it marked the beginning of an eight-year run of standout play that is rarely seen in NFL history at the game’s most important position.
Since 2004, Brees leads all quarterbacks (minimum 1,000 attempts) in games started (126), pass attempts (4,570), pass completions (3,073), completion percentage (67.2 percent), passing yards (35,129) and touchdown passes (252).
The problem is that he broke out about a year too late in the “Manning/Brady” NFL world we all live in.
After suffering a Week 17 injury in 2005, Brees hit the free-agent market without great buzz; the Miami Dolphins thought his shoulder injury was severe enough to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead.
By joining Sean Payton in New Orleans in 2006, Brees helped reshape the culture and expectations for Saints football. While Brees showed he could play at a high level in San Diego, it was the marriage with offensive guru Payton that has launched Brees into record-setting, elite status.
But something has seemingly always been missing, limiting the amount of praise Brees actually receives.
Even after he won a Super Bowl MVP at the end of the 2009 season, media quickly turned their attentions to expanding the “Big Two” of quarterbacks from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to a “Big Three,” which would include Brees.
Mike Silver mentioned it in this August 2010 article for Yahoo! Sports:
After years of being understandably overshadowed by Brady and Peyton Manning – and, to be fair, many other quarterbacks whose physical gifts are far more obvious than his own – Brees has, at least for the moment, turned the Big Two into the Big Three.
A nice gesture, but it never actually happened once the 2010 season got underway. By season’s end, it was Aaron Rodgers getting the type of attention Brees was expected to receive.
This past season, Rodgers received 48 of the 50 votes for league MVP, which is another area in which Brees has often been looked over.
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Overshadowed Playoff Legend
Rodney Dangerfield, eat your heart out. The 5-4 postseason record held by Brees does not begin to do his performances justice.
Even the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl run is better known for Sean Payton’s surprise onside kick and Tracy Porter’s late interceptions of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning than it is for the game-winning drives led by Brees.
Huge interceptions highlighted the Green Bay Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run, yet we don’t associate that with their title as much we do Aaron Rodgers’ run.
Eli Manning receives a lot of credit for the eight game-winning drives he had last season, but Brees had six in 2009 for the Saints, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey in Super Bowl XLIV.
In the playoffs, Brees has been more consistent and prolific than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Those three have combined to win six Super Bowls.
Why the difference in perception?
While Brees has never won postseason games in consecutive seasons, that’s a much harder feat than it sounds. Peyton Manning (2003-04) and Roethlisberger (2004-05) have done it only once, while the aforementioned Rodgers and Eli Manning are a combined 0-5 in the playoffs in seasons in which they were not going on their Super Bowl runs.
Overall, few players have ever been as prolific at moving their offenses and putting points on the board in the playoffs as Brees. He also has the lowest percentage of drives ending in quarterback turnovers.
He’s even managed to do it with the worst average starting field position in the last 30 years.
The playoffs are a fickle beast. Brees is the first quarterback in NFL history to lose two playoff games when scoring at least 28 points (36 at Seattle, 2010; 32 at San Francisco, 2011). His first playoff loss came after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime that would have won the game.
Against San Francisco last season, Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a playoff game and still lose.
One stop of the 49ers by the Saints defense, and Brees would have hosted Eli Manning and the New York Giants in the NFC Championship. Brees is 4-0 against the Giants/Eli in his career, with 11 TD, 0 INT, and a 122.1 passer rating.
The Giants infamously squeezed past the 49ers last season after two fumbled punts by Kyle Williams set up short fields for their only points of the second half.
Meanwhile the Saints, despite five turnovers, hung 32 points on the NFC’s best defense. That’s how close Brees could have been to yet another Super Bowl and title-game MVP.
Always remember that a legacy can be one drive, or one play, away from being drastically changed.
Drew Brees: Stealth Hall of Famer
Brees will not be remembered for one drive or one game; his body of work is already too large for that.
It is remarkable that such a career can essentially go under the radar.
If the following sounds like a pitch from an agent, then maybe that’s what it should be used as. This negotiating table could use some facts to remind both parties what they are dealing with:
Brees has never missed a start due to injury in his career. The last two games he’s missed were Week 17 affairs in which it was coaches' decisions to rest starters for the playoffs. If not for that, Brees would have started 131 consecutive regular season games (140 including playoffs).
That would have been good for third all time, behind Brett Favre (297) and Peyton Manning (208).
High Usage Rate
Not only does Brees play every week, but he is one of the most heavily relied on quarterbacks in NFL history. His average of 35.6 pass attempts per game is the highest in NFL history, and that number is even greater in his New Orleans career, at 38.6 pass attempts/game.
He’s thrown at least 635 passes in four of the last five seasons, while never taking more than 25 sacks in those seasons.
Despite the high usage rate, Brees has proven to be one of the most efficient quarterbacks in NFL history in the last eight seasons.
He has twice set the single-season record for completion percentage, last breaking it in 2011 (71.2 percent). His completion percentage has never dipped below 64.3 percent since 2004, and his passer ratings have ranged from 89.2 to 110.6.
He has also thrown a touchdown pass in 43 consecutive games (49 including playoffs).
It would take a long time to list all of Brees’ NFL records, but he has rewritten the record book on most single-season completions three times and broken the longstanding record of 5,084 passing yards, set by Dan Marino in 1984, with 5,476 yards last season (his second season with more than 5,000 yards passing).
Brees set at least 10 records in the passing onslaught of 2011 alone.
His six-year passing totals in New Orleans of 3,670 attempts, 2,488 completions, 28,394 yards and 201 touchdown passes are the highest in each category for any six-year span in NFL history.
Brees has been a gamer throughout his career, and he has only gotten better.
He has 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 29 game-winning drives in his career. From 2009-11, Brees led 15 game-winning drives, which tied him with Peyton Manning (2007-09, 2008-10) and Tom Brady (2001-03) for the most ever in a three-year span.
His numbers could have been even better, had it not been for six potential game-winning field goals missed by his kickers and several defensive lapses.
Brees has 10 lost comebacks—the most of any active player. A lost comeback is a game in which all the requirements for a fourth-quarter comeback win are met except for the win.
A Case Which “Pay the Man!” Is Justified
Given his on-field career, perhaps it’s no surprise that Brees would be overshadowed by his peers in the contract department as well. Consider some of the large deals recently made for other quarterbacks:
- Tom Brady, at age 33, signed a four-year extension during the 2010 season. The contract is worth $72 million, with a guarantee of $48.5 million.
- Michael Vick, who always comes with questions of character and durability, was given a six-year contract worth $100 million after just one strong (12-game) season, in 2010 for the Eagles.
- Peyton Manning, at ages 35-36 and after numerous neck operations, got not one but two five-year contracts, worth over $90 million each, in a span of eight months, from the Colts and Broncos.
Something does not add up.
Not only does Brees carry fewer concerns (age, health, off-field issues) than these players did, but he may be the one most likely to earn his contract’s value.
Isn’t Brees exactly the kind of player to whom you would want to offer a big contract, especially given the type of offseason the Saints have had? The six-year deal for $60 million he received from the Saints in 2006 looks like a real bargain, given the production he provided.
Is Brees a perfect quarterback?
He has a tendency every year to have one of those multi-interception games that leaves you scratching your head (see St. Louis game last season).
But no one’s perfect.
For New Orleans, Brees is available, and Sean Payton will not be this season. The Saints need their face of the franchise there to lead the team through this dark period.
While other teams have bent over backwards to accommodate their franchise quarterbacks with contracts, the Saints continue to wait.
They can’t wait past the July 16 deadline for this long-term deal; at that point, Brees will either play under the one-year tender of $16.3 million or sit out the entire season and earn nothing.
Someone alert the Saints that it’s OK this time: They can put a price on this player’s head. Roger won’t mind. Just make sure it’s the head of Drew Brees, and that you’re doing the right thing for him.
Because he’s done more than enough for you, New Orleans.