Despite the Playoff Seed, Drew Brees and the Saints Could Run the Table

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 4, 2018

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
Steve Nesius/Associated Press

Drew Brees broke the all-time single-season completion percentage record for the third time in his career this year, completing 72.0 percent of his passes. 

Brees first broke Ken Anderson's 27-year-old record in 2009 (70.6 percent) and then set a new mark in 2011 (71.2 percent). Sam Bradford claimed the completion crown last season by completing 71.6 percent of his passes, every last one of them a checkdown to Matt Asiata in the flat (or at least it felt that way).

Brees, the all-time NFL completion rate champ at 66.9 percent, was having none of that, and he came roaring back with renewed precision this season. And Brees’ completions weren’t Bradford-esque micro-throws, either. Brees led the league with 8.1 yards per attempt this season as well.

OK, nobody cares about any statistic Sam Bradford once held an all-time record in. Even the analytics people treat completion percentage like the Creed album that somehow got onto their MP3 players.

But at the age of 38, Brees may be better than ever. Their running game, defense and rebuilt roster may be the reasons the Saints have a shot at the Super Bowl instead of just compiling fantasy statistics this year. But Brees is the reason New Orleans, despite being the No. 4 seed, is the most likely team to run the table in the NFC playoffs.

This was supposedly Brees' "down" year. He threw just 23 touchdowns. His yardage total (4,334) is down 17 percent from last year, but he also joined Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks in pro football history with over 70,000 career passing yards, and he’s tied with Tom Brady behind Favre and Manning with 488 career touchdown passes. But his raw numbers this year look like a typical Kirk Cousins season.

With all the Saints talk centered on their resurgent running game and newfound ability to play defense, Brees won’t get an MVP sniff and will likely be shut out of all awards voting, even the All-Pro ballots.

But he doesn't need to be superhuman anymore.

The Saints added running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the draft, made some other additions and common-sense adjustments on defense, dabbled briefly and strangely with Adrian Peterson before remembering that Mark Ingram was on the payroll, and completely redefined their identity this season.

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 31: Alvin Kamara #41 of the New Orleans Saints runs into the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown in the first quarter of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo b
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After years of weekly autumn editions of March Madness, the Saints began winning by scores like 20-0, 20-12 and 23-13. Ingram and Kamara combined for 3,094 thunder-and-lightning scrimmage yards. Lattimore was the breakout star of a pass defense that ranked third in the NFL with 20 interceptions. The Saints were reborn as a rugged slobber knocker team.

If you weren’t paying careful attention, you might think Brees spent the season handing off from a rocking chair.

So you may be surprised to learn that Brees led the NFL with 386 completed passes. That was his lowest total since 2009, but it was still one more completion than Brady threw this year.

They were all screens to Kamara, you say? Nope. Brees led the NFL in 20-plus-yard receptions, with 72. That’s 10 more than second-place Brady, who threw 45 more passes.

They were all screens that Kamara broke off for 21-yard gains, you say? Wrong again! Wide receiver Michael Thomas led the Saints (and finished fourth in the NFL) with 22 receptions of 20-plus yards. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. had 15 catches of 20-plus yards. Kamara did make a screen-and-sprint contribution with 11 of them, but Brandon Coleman had eight and Coby Fleener had seven.

For the sake of comparison, NFL receptions leader Jarvis Landry had just six catches longer than 20 yards, while A.J. Green had just one more than Coleman. The Saints had a lot of players making a lot of big plays.

David Goldman/Associated Press

Thomas, Ginn, Coleman and Fleener are rarely mentioned in discussions of the 2017 Saints success story. That’s because, besides Thomas, they aren’t really special players. The Saints fielded a big-play offense this year because of Brees. They had a high-efficiency offense because of Brees. And they didn’t finish 7-9 again this year because the backs and defenders finally allowed Brees to work smarter, not harder.

So the Saints are entering the playoffs with a Hall of Fame quarterback having a historic season, and it’s the third-most noteworthy thing about them. That’s pretty scary.

The Saints were playoff fixtures early in the Brees era, before Bountygate and bad taste in coordinators turned their defense into tomato paste. They won postseason games by scores of 31-28 and 45-28 and lost 41-36 and 36-32. Playoff-caliber Saints teams always had credible running games and defenses, but they were built to live and die by shootouts.

Brees led the Saints to a Super Bowl victory, but they were often foiled in road games: a grass field, winter chills or a false-start provoking crowd can throw off a team hoping to win on a 60-pass-per-game diet.

Everything is different now that Brees is driving a vehicle with four-wheel drive.

The Saints are hosting a Panthers team they swept in the regular season on Sunday. That looks like a win.

Then they hit the road. Philadelphia is their most likely second-round destination. Brees versus Nick Foles? The Saints have been there, beaten that, and the new ground-and-pound Saints are better equipped for frozen-over Philly than the 2013 team was.

Things get dicier after that. The Saints lost road games to the Vikings, Rams and Falcons this season, and at least one and possibly two will stand between them and the Super Bowl. While the Vikings and Rams both would get to host a matchup with New Orleans, few would pick Case Keenum or Jared Goff to outduel Brees in the playoffs at this point in their careers. And that’s before supporting casts and coaching staffs are factored in: Sean Payton was calling a surprise onside kick in the Super Bowl when Sean McVay was a 24-year-old assistant tight ends coach. Should the Falcons be the opponent, the Saints would at least have the advantage of playing at home.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 19:  Head Coach Sean Payton talks with Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints during a timeout against the Washington Redskins at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 19, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Saints defeated the Reds
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

At the center of everything, though, will be Brees, who won’t get an MVP sniff and will likely be shut out of all awards voting, even the All-Pro ballots. Perhaps we should make up a special award: the Outstanding Quarterback Thrilled That His Raw Statistics Declined Award, celebrating the achievement of persevering for years until his franchise finally got around to building a supporting cast that could carry its share of the load.

Previous winners of that award include John Elway when Terrell Davis joined the Broncos, Peyton Manning when the Broncos defense began carrying him across the finish line and even Tom Brady, whose biggest passing seasons (2007, 2011, 2012, 2015) never quite lined up with his championship seasons.

Come to think of it, the Lombardi Trophy is a worthy award for a great quarterback who finally gets to do more with less effort.

     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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