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Who's to Blame for the Overstated Decline of Drew Brees?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 22, 2015

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It's hard to believe it was five years ago.

Drew Brees, already a sports superhero in New Orleans, lifting himself to legendary status with a Super Bowl XLIV victory over the Indianapolis Colts

Brees did a lot of lifting that night in Miami. With a near-perfect performance, the game's MVP also lifted his team, the New Orleans Saints, as well as his toddler son Baylen in celebration, giving us an unforgettable image to mark the moment Brees had become something special and worthy of lore. 

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07:  Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates with his son Baylen Brees as his wife Brittany Brees looks on after defeating the Indianapolis Colts during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Mia
Win McNamee/Getty Images

At that point, it didn't necessarily feel as though we were witnessing the climax of Brees' career. He had just turned 31, which is oftentimes the heart of a quarterback's prime. He was coming off the best year of his career, a season in which he was the league's highest-rated qualified passer. He also tied an NFL record with a completion percentage of 70.6 while helping New Orleans flirt with a perfect record. 

But in the half-decade since Brees carried the Saints to their first championship, the 2001 second-round pick out of Purdue has yet to get back to a Super Bowl, or even a conference title game. He and the Saints have won just two postseason games in five years and are coming off their second losing campaign in a three-year span. 

Sure, he's been a Pro Bowler in all five post-Super Bowl seasons, but those come with rubber stamps at this point. And he reset that completion percentage record and passed for more yards than any quarterback in history while earning the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2011. But passing records—particularly those related to volume-based yardage statistics—are quite hollow in an era hijacked by the deep ball. 

Entering 2015, Brees still hasn't been able to match or better his yards-per-attempt average or interception total from that magical 2009 season. 

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Drew Brees: 2009 vs. everything since
2009Since
Completion %70.668.0
TD/season3439
INT/season1117
TD-INT ratio3.12.3
Yards/attempt8.57.7
Passer rating109.699.9
Wins/season1310
Playoff wins32
Pro Football Reference

Brees is 36 now, making him the third-oldest starting quarterback and the eighth-oldest regular starter in the NFL. And frankly, he has a lot less to show for his efforts over the last five years than many would have expected. 

NFL's oldest starting quarterbacks
QuarterbackTeamAge
1. Peyton ManningBroncos38
2. Tom BradyPatriots37
3. Drew BreesSaints36
4. Carson PalmerCardinals35
5. Tony RomoCowboys35
Pro Football Reference

In three of those five seasons that have passed since Super Bowl XLIV, Brees has ranked in the top three in terms of interceptions thrown. Only New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has thrown more picks during that span.

Most interceptions since 2010
QuarterbackStartsPicks
1. Eli Manning8097
2. Drew Brees8084
3. Philip Rivers8077
4. Carson Palmer6275
5. Ryan Fitzpatrick6674
6. Jay Cutler6667
7. Andy Dalton6466
8. Joe Flacco8066
9. Matt Ryan8066
10. Matthew Stafford6765
Pro Football Reference

There are a lot of solid quarterbacks on that list, but none are supposed to be in Brees' ballpark. During the same time frame and with nearly as many starts to both of their names, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, whom Brees is supposed to be grouped with one day in conversations for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, have thrown a combined total of just 80 picks. 

By comparison, four quarterbacks had more picks than Brees during his first four years in New Orleans. He went from throwing 0.9 picks per start to tossing 1.1 per start. Not a massive slide, but worth noting considering that peers like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo have actually improved in those areas during the same stretches of their careers. 

But every career arc is different, and it's also worth mentioning that, like Brees, Peyton and Eli Manning both saw their pick rates increase in the first few years beyond the age of 30, while Philip Rivers failed to improve in that area at the same point. Fluctuations in production, efficiency and rates at which mistakes are made aren't necessarily death knells. 

This is a team sport, and quarterbacks are often affected greatly by the circumstances surrounding them. That could mean weapons (or lack thereof), support from the running game (or lack thereof), pass protection (same deal), defensive efficiency (which alters scenarios and forces quarterbacks to take more or fewer chances), play-calling (i.e. balance) and the offensive philosophy under which they're working. 

And the reality is, there are some rather strong indicators that Brees has mostly been just as strong as he used to be. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Brees was the league's most accurate passer in 2014. PFF has a metric called "accuracy percentage" which takes into account drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and passes on which the quarterback was hit as he threw, and Brees was the only passer in the NFL who had an accuracy percentage above 80.0 in 2014. He also ranked in the top six in each of the previous four seasons, finishing second in both 2010 and 2011. 

Now, that doesn't mean a lot if you aren't taking chances. Just look at guys like Chad Pennington or Alex Smith, both of whom are famous for completing a lot of checkdowns and safe throws. But more numbers from PFF actually indicate Brees is astonishingly accurate regardless of how deep he's throwing the ball. 

PFF also generates an "adjusted completion percentage" total that again takes those aforementioned uncontrollable factors like drops and throwaways into account. But they take it one step further by creating an "expected adjusted completion percentage" total by factoring in a quarterback's average depth of target. What this essentially does is account for how far each quarterback typically throws the ball. 

The difference between your adjusted completion percentage and your expected adjusted completion percentage indicates how much more or less accurate you've been than the league average with depth of passes factored in. 

And in 2014, Brees ranked first in the league by a wide margin in that category: 

QuarterbackaDOTActual aC%Expected aC%+/-
1. Drew Brees8.174%67%7.1%
2. Tony Romo9.569%65%4.1%
3. Philip Rivers9.069%65%4.0%
4. Carson Palmer9.269%65%3.6%
5. Teddy Bridgewater7.971%67%3.6%
Pro Football Focus

He also finished sixth in 2013 and seventh in 2012, so that's no anomaly. In fact, PFF's Mike Clay notes that since he started analyzing passing production based on depth eight years ago, only Rodgers has fared better than Brees: 

There are 40 passers who have 1,000 aimed throws under their belt since I started this study in 2007.

Aaron Rodgers (+5.8 percent) is tops in the category during that span. Brees (+4.9 percent), Kurt Warner (+4.1 percent), Peyton Manning (+3.9 percent) and Philip Rivers (+3.8 percent) round out the top-five.

On the other hand, Derek Anderson (-4.8 percent) is worst in the category since 2007. He’s followed closely by Marc Bulger (-4.7 percent), Mark Sanchez (-4.2 percent), Josh Freeman (-2.5 percent) and Matt Hasselbeck (-2.3 percent).

Finally, PFF also measures "deep accuracy percentage," which uses the above formula but only looks at pass attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield. And again, Brees fares well. He was one of six qualified quarterbacks with a deep accuracy percentage of 50.0 percent or higher in 2014, and he also ranked among the top six deep passers in 2010, 2011 and 2012. 

He ranked slightly below the league median with a deep accuracy percentage of just 40.3 in 2013, but that appears to be somewhat of an aberration, and it's important to note he still only threw two deep interceptions that season. 

Now, Brees attempted deep balls on only 9.7 percent of his dropbacks in 2014, which ranked 36th among 38 qualified quarterbacks. He has always benefited from strong pass-catching backs, and he ranks among the league leaders in yards-after-the-catch support from his receivers on an annual basis. But that's nothing new. In that memorable '09 season, 46.5 percent of his yards came after the catch. Since, that number has actually dropped to 46.0.  

Looking at these numbers, it appears the only season that was exceptionally different for Brees in terms of passing trends was 2013:

Drew Brees: Yards after the catch compared to deep accuracy
Year% of yards after catchDeep acc.%
200946.558.7
201045.452.1
201145.952.1
201243.848.8
201349.940.3
201444.851.6
Pro Football Focus/SportingCharts.com

Something was off that year, which might explain why running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas caught a combined 148 passes for 1,117 yards. Those two also put up similar numbers in 2011, but that was a more productive season overall for Brees and the New Orleans offense. 

This isn't to say that Brees has been perfect, but it seems as though his interception spikes are the only thing we can consider strongly faulting him for. He's been doing pretty much everything else right, but sometimes, he's just too damn stubborn. 

His biggest flaw might be his penchant for forcing things in big moments, which explains why since 2010, he's actually thrown even more interceptions than Eli Manning during the second half of one-score games. You'll notice he also throws more touchdown passes and has a higher rating and completion percentage than the guys within his range on this list, which shows you that this is mainly about those picks.  

Most picks during the 2nd half of 1-score games since 2010
QuarterbackINTComp.%TDRating
1. Drew Brees2966.43990.2
2. Eli Manning2559.53386.1
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick2362.52277.6
4. Philip Rivers2262.22785.6
5. Andy Dalton1861.51982.1
Pro Football Reference

Amazingly, despite all of those interceptions, he's got the eighth-highest passer rating in the league among the 35 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 200 passes under those circumstances and within that time frame. 

And before you let Brees off the hook by claiming he's been in those situations a lot more than others, consider the crowd surrounding him when you look at interceptions per pass attempt under the same circumstances: 

Highest INT rates, 2nd half of 1-score games since 2010
QuarterbackINT %
Kevin Kolb4.48
Ryan Fitzpatrick4.47
Michael Vick4.28
Eli Manning4.26
Drew Brees4.01
Pro Football Reference (min. 200 attempts)

And if we want to reel in the sample a little, his rate this past season was 4.62, which ranked behind only Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in those spots. 

So Brees has to be held at least partially responsible for what has happened to the Saints since that 2009 Super Bowl, but a lot of the time it feels as though he's forcing things merely to compensate for the issues those around him have been experiencing. 

We're talking about a team that has been gutted in two consecutive offseasons as a result of what can only be described as salary-cap hell. In December, Grantland's Bill Barnwell called this "a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees," but it's fair to wonder if that self-destruction is taking place prematurely. They handed out some bad contracts to guys like Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette, and now, they're paying dearly. 

Last year, Brees lost the versatile, experienced Sproles. This offseason, he's watched helplessly as All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and key cogs Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills have walked out the door. To boot, they haven't been able to sign anyone to upgrade the league's 31st-ranked defense. 

Quite simply, the Saints are getting worse by the year. So it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Brees struggle in certain areas, particularly when it comes to trying to make things happen all on his own. 

Consider all the losses the Saints have suffered in free agency the last couple years (Jermon Bushrod, Sedrick Ellis, Jonathan Casillas, Brian de la Puente, Roman Harper, Will Smith, Lance Moore, Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, Thomas, Stills, Lofton, Graham), their inability to hit it big in key draft spots, and that they basically lost an entire season due to the penalties handed down and the distractions from the bounty scandal. 

Consider all of that, and you begin to see Brees as a victim. 

Somewhat amazingly, he and the Saints have still won 11 or more games three times during the five-year stretch since that Super Bowl, and Brees has still managed to put together strong regular and advanced stats despite rising pick totals. 

There are explanations for all of that, and the fact that he's a Super Bowl champion with the highest completion percentage and the fourth-highest yardage total in NFL history indicates that he'll likely be a Hall of Famer regardless, but it is frustrating to imagine where Brees' career might have gone had the Saints done a better job supporting him the last few years. 

You can't help wondering if Brees is imagining the same thing.

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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