New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints last season without a running game, a defense or the true head coach. He completed 63 percent of his passes, posted a 96 rating and threw 43 touchdowns to 19 interceptions while averaging 42 pass attempts per game.
That's called shouldering the load. That's also called elite quarterbacking.
Brees has been one of the top passers in the league since he became the Saints quarterback because of his excellent vision, strong arm, accuracy, fundamentals and intelligence. That combination of traits has enabled him to play at a consistently high level for many years now, which is precisely what an elite player does.
He's made a lot of great throws over the last few years including last season. One of his finer ones was career touchdown No. 300 against the Denver Broncos in Week 8. It showed off his precision as a passer and understanding of the game.
It's 2nd-and-3, and Brees was standing in shotgun set, making checks at the line while surrounded by a split-back set.
To his right was tight end David Thomas, and to his left stood running back Darren Sproles, a 5'6" wonder who was set to run an angle route and split two Broncos linebackers down the middle of the field.
The Brees-Sproles connection is one of the league's best, especially when it's coming on an angle route. It's perhaps Brees' most effective and easiest throw because of his accuracy and chemistry with the running back.
When the play began, Brees took a quick dropback and looked to the middle of the field to read how many safeties were deep. A late double rotation by the safeties led to only one covering the deep middle.
Next, he glanced to his far left where wide receiver Marques Colston was running a route. He was covered by one of the best defensive backs of all time in Champ Bailey. Scratch that option off.
Now he was down to the final option, Sproles. As Sproles released from the backfield, weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan mirrored his steps and slid outside. With Trevathan outside, Sproles had an opportunity to separate and find an opening in the middle of the field.
To separate, he had to avoid tipping off his route.
When he started running forward, Sproles ran directly at Trevathan, with his shoulders square and his head facing forward. That allowed him to freeze Trevathan and give his quarterback the chance to place the ball in between Trevathan and the middle linebacker.
Finally, Sproles gave a quick shake of his shoulders and planted his left foot in the ground to explode inside.
He separated from Trevathan and found an opening in between the linebackers. But for this play to be a touchdown, it would require exquisite ball placement from Brees.
The throw had to be just in front of Sproles' chest—but not too far in front as to where he would get blasted by the middle linebacker upon the catch. It also couldn't be too inside; it had to be out in front to hit Sproles in stride.
It was a highly difficult pass to make, but Brees made it look effortless.
The perfect accuracy of the pass led Sproles straight for the end zone, where he quickly found himself after making the deep safety miss.
Brees has been making that type of difficult pass for years now, which has been noticed by his peers, such as rival and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman.
Freeman presented Brees as the No. 2 player in the NFL Top 100 Players of 2012 and raved about his precision as a passer. He specifically noted Brees' precision and anticipation down the seam, around the same area where the touchdown pass to Sproles went.
Two big reasons why Brees is precise and has been an elite quarterback are his consistent mechanics and fundamentals, which are the NFL's best.
He almost always rotates his hips, transfers his weight and follows through with the throw. He's able to do this from different platforms, which not all passers are able to do, and do it well.
In addition to his mechanics and fundamentals, Brees also has great accuracy, arm strength, vision and knowledge of the game. All of these traits have helped him produce at a high level since becoming the Saints quarterback despite adversity.
This season, he'll have his coach back. If he has an improved running game and defense as well, the Saints will win more games than the seven they won last season, and critics will be quick to announce that Brees is once again an elite quarterback.
But he was one all along.