Sometimes great seasons manage to go totally overlooked, almost completely unnoticed and forgotten about immediately afterwards. It’s no great conspiracy, nor conscious snub; it happens because sometimes players have the misfortune of reaching greatness at the same time as somebody else, and that other guy reached just a little bit higher.
In 2004, we saw one of the greatest seasons ever put together by an NFL quarterback. A league-leading performance in yardage, completions, yards per game and 39 touchdown passes would usually be heralded as an MVP-caliber season, and the numbers put together would thrust it into the all-time greatness discussion.
It was largely ignored however, because Peyton Manning was better. I’m talking of course about Daunte Culpepper.
It’s easy to forget after the past half-dozen years of his career that Culpepper was once upon a time truly elite. In 2004, he hit his peak before suffering a devastating knee injury the next season and never coming close to that level of play again.
He threw for 4,717 yards that season, added another 406 rushing, completed 379 passes, averaged 294.8 yards per game and accounted for 41 touchdowns while throwing just 11 picks. His QB rating for the year was 110.9, a ridiculous figure, but his season was overshadowed by Peyton Manning throwing 49 touchdown passes and breaking Dan Marino’s record.
I mention all of this because it’s happening again in 2011. Drew Brees is having a season to be remembered, but nobody is paying any attention because Aaron Rodgers is redefining what we think of as elite quarterback play.
Brees and Culpepper have been linked before, with both quarterbacks hitting the free-agent market at the same time after the 2005 season, and both guys searching for a team after major injuries.
Culpepper was seen as the smaller risk by the Miami Dolphins, who didn’t want to invest big money in a quarterback coming off a major injury to his throwing shoulder, and Brees ended up settling for New Orleans.
That worked out pretty well for him. For the Dolphins? Not so much.
Aaron Rodgers is definitely having a season for the ages—one of the truly great seasons in NFL history—and he is threatening to rewrite multiple NFL records, but the season Brees is having is going almost completely unnoticed, when it really shouldn’t be.
No player in NFL history has thrown for more yards through 10 games than the 3,334 Brees has managed, including Rodgers. Dan Marino’s single-season yardage mark of 5,084 has come under increasing threat in recent years, but nobody has come closer than Brees.
In 2008, Brees fell 15 yards shy of the figure, but this season he is currently on pace to hit 5,350 yards. Brees needs to throw 291.7 yards per game to break the record, and he’s currently throwing for over 333 yards per game.
Having 333 passing yards would be a huge day for most quarterbacks in the league, and that’s Brees’ average thus far. Even in the ever-expanding passing league that is today’s NFL, that is breaking new ground.
His season isn’t all about yardage though, as Brees has thrown 23 touchdowns, tied with Tom Brady for second in the league behind Aaron Rodgers. He’s also completed 70.9 percent of his passes—an incredible figure—and 4.8 percent better than any other quarterback…except Aaron Rodgers.
At Pro Football Focus, we have a stat that removes spikes, throwaway passes, et cetera from that completion percentage statistic and tells you of all the aimed passes a quarterback throws and how many hit his intended receiver in the hands.
Brees has 77.5 percent of his intended throws hitting his receivers, which is almost three percent higher than any other passer…except of course Aaron Rodgers, who is posting a frankly ridiculous mark of 82.4 percent.
No quarterback (including Aaron Rodgers for once) has a better accuracy mark for passes thrown under pressure this season. When Brees is pressured, he is hitting his intended target on 67.3 percent of his passes. Rodgers heads the trailing pack at 66 percent and only seven other quarterbacks top the 60-percent mark.
The mark of a great quarterback is often how he can perform under pressure, with the walls closing in around him. When you squeeze quarterbacks, most fold, but a rare few find a way to focus. Brees is one of those few.
It’s worth noting that Brees also faces pressure a lot more than Rodgers, with 127 of his 450 drop-backs resulting in pressure. Rodgers has felt heat on just 89 of his 348 drops.
The only statistic that really jumps out in a negative way on his stat sheet is the one that shows Brees has thrown 11 interceptions, which ties for fourth most in the NFL. The problem with interceptions, though, is that they can all too often get charged to the quarterback, despite being the fault of another player.
If you look through the picks Brees has thrown this year, that is the case for some of them. Some are the result of some unlucky bounces that can strike at any time and instantly skew the stat sheet.
Last season, Tom Brady threw only four picks but had several more dropped by defenders. His interception figure could easily have doubled given identical passes from Brady if defenders had just caught what hit them in the hands.
The reverse can be true, too, and Brees could easily have thrown for single-digit interceptions had receivers caught balls that were thrown to them rather than deflecting them to defenders. That’s not to excuse the picks Brees has thrown, but it’s worth pointing out that those types of plays tend to strike randomly and don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of what is happening with the football. Brees has thrown some poor interceptions, but he has thrown fewer poor passes than that figure of 11 picks suggests.
Aaron Rodgers is playing at a level that may not have been hit by any other quarterback in NFL history, and he will rightly walk away with the 2011 MVP award if he continues to play at this level.
He is raising the benchmark for quarterbacks in impressive fashion, but it would be an injustice if the season that Drew Brees is having gets missed because all of the attention focused on Rodgers. In 2004, we were lucky enough to witness two of the greatest seasons ever put together by a quarterback, but most people only remember one.
Don’t let history repeat itself in 2011 just because one guy reached a little higher.
Sam Monson is one of the core team members at ProFootballFocus.com, a website that analyzes every player from every snap of every game in the NFL season and provides a whole host of unique data, stats and gradings.