From the gunslinger of the 7-9 years to the deadly efficient twilight of his career, a look at how Drew Brees evolved as a Saint
Drew Brees is the best player in New Orleans Saints. That isn’t up for debate. He took a team from the basement to a perennial contender year in and year out, and he did it after the Saints took a chance on him in free agency. However, Brees isn’t just the best quarterback to wear the black and gold. He’s the best three-in-one player to do so.
Throughout his career with the Saints, Brees went through various phases. He adjusted his game several times in order to work with the roster the Saints gave him, and he showed an adaptability that few other players in the past have shown. When Peyton Manning’s arm strength deteriorated, he fell off of a steep cliff. And while “pliability” is a word infamously used to describe Tom Brady (indeed, if you Google pliable every result is TB12 based), it applies to Brees in a far more abstract sense.
Here’s a look at the times Brees reinvented himself throughout his New Orleans career, and some speculation on which version of Brees we may see the Saints try to emulate moving into the post-Brees era.
2006 Brees: New offense, new me
In Brees’ first year with the Saints, he led to the NFC Championship Game via an offensive style that he’d touched upon in San Diego with the Chargers, but never fully realized. He attempted a then-career-high 554 passes, completing 64.3 percent of his passes, in-line with his last two years in San Diego.
However, the other number that stands out is his 11 interceptions. Brees threw 15-plus interceptions in three of his first four seasons as a starter. 2006 also marked another first for Brees: His first of many 4,000-yard seasons. The only year that rivaled 2006 for Brees was 2004 with the Chargers, his first Pro Bowl. 2006 was also Brees’ first — and only — First Team All-Pro selection.
While the Saints lost to the Bears, it led to a renewed optimism for the Saints fanbase. It started with Domecoming, which is still the most memorable moment of that season. But there was a lot to love from that entire season.
2007-2008 Brees: High-volume, frustrating results
From 2006, it was clear the Saints had a special arm talent in Brees. Unfortunately, from there, they fell in love with the passing game to an infuriating degree. The Saints passed 62.5 percent of the time in these two seasons, with Brees racking up a whopping 1,287 pass attempts.
While his numbers exploded — Brees had his first 5,000-yard season in 2008 alongside 34 touchdowns — his interception numbers did too. Brees went from 11 picks in 2006 to 18 and 17 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. His entire 2007 stat line if baffling. Brees threw the ball 652 times and completed 440 of those passes, netting him a strong 67.5 percent completion percentage, but he somehow had just five more yards than he did in 2006.
To a degree, this was the advent of the Saints’ future philosophy of using the short passing game as a substitute for the run. It was also the blueprint of the 7-9 years for the Saints, as they went 7-9 and 8-8 in these seasons, threatening purgatory.
2009: Back to basics
This iteration of Brees is the one that got the Saints a Super Bowl, and brought them their most threatening years down the road. The Saints passed on 55 percent of plays in 2009, and by taking the load off of Brees to a degree, it led to a well-oiled machine on offense that went 13-0 to start the season.
Brees was absurdly efficient in this season, completing 70 percent of his passes and throwing 11 interceptions, getting himself back under a pick per game. His 514 passes were a far cry from the 635-plus of the past two years, and yet he still managed to thow for 34 touchdowns, tying his career-high at the time from the previous two seasons. Other volume stats also took a hit. Brees went down to 4,388 yards, but the efficiency more than offset the drop.
This version of the Saints was incredibly fun to watch, and while there’s undoubtedly a bit of hindsight bias, it was probably Brees’ best shot at an MVP award. Ultimately, the Super Bowl was a better feeling. But Sean Payton’s trust in both Brees and his running game went a long way. If 2007 and 2008 were blueprints for the 7-9 Saints, 2009 was the blueprint for the regular season steamroller we’ve seen the past few seasons.
2010: A bit of a hangover
This might be a bit unfair to Brees to call 2010 a hangover year, but throughout the season, something just felt off. While the numbers were clearly there, a wild card loss to the 7-9 Seahawks halted an 11-5 regular season. The volume was back up for Brees, who attempted 658 passes and completed 68.1 percent of them, but he still threw for “just” 4,620 yards.
The truly alarming number for Brees from this season is the 22 interceptions. He had 33 touchdowns, but the interceptions offset the number, and it just felt like a weird year after the Super Bowl win. This was Saints fans’ first experience defending a championship, and it became readily apparent how hard it is to do so. The Saints were back to passing 65 percent of the time, and while the early returns were promising, the loss to Beastquake wasn’t as devastating as future playoff losses because it felt like something Saints fans could see coming to a degree (although a 7-9 team hosting a playoff game will always be absurd).
2011: A season like no other
This was the season where the stars aligned for the Saints before going completely supernova and blotting them out. It was a perfect marriage of efficiency and volume, an absolutely insane season the likes of which we’ll likely never see again in New Orleans. Brees still passed a ridiculous amount in 2011, throwing the ball 657 times, but the stats that follow that number are absurd.
Brees completed 71.2 percent of his passes, a career-high at the time that would stand until 2017. He had 46 touchdowns, 5,476 yards, and a career-high touchdown percentage of 7 percent. While his 14 interceptions lands on the high side, Brees’ season was, in a word, stupid. The year was, of course, ultimately ended by the 49ers and Vernon Davis, but Brees did everything he could to keep the Saints in that game. He led a game-winning drive in this game, the defense just conducted a game-losing one. A 13-3 season was cut short, but at least we got another Eli Manning upset of the Patriots.
While there are a lot of arguments that this is Brees’ true MVP season, the competition was definitely stiffer than 2009. The year Aaron Rodgers had was incredible, and his 45-6 touchdown to interception ratio was incredibly impressive. Rodgers hasn’t thrown double-digit interceptions since 2011, so honestly, all of the credit in the world to him.
2012-2016: High-volume, low efficiency; aka the 7-9 years; aka football purgatory
I’ll say from the top that 2013 is an outlier here, as that was the year that Rob Ryan’s defense was a brick wall. This was an absolutely infuriating time to be a Saints fan, as Brees was always battling back into games, and he was killing himself to do it. Brees completed 67.8 percent of his passes in this span, and he had 184 touchdowns to 74 interceptions.
Week after week, the Saints were in track meets. In three of these five seasons, Brees had 5,000-plus yards. In the other two years, he had 4,952 (2014) and 4,870 (2015). In all of these seasons, the Saints looked like they were a game away from shedding their stigma as a mediocre team. But ultimately they always fell short for one reason or another.
At the end of this span, it looked like Brees was doomed to be a stat-hound after his one Super Bowl win. But there was still time for another reveal.
2017-2018: Back to basics (again)
After Alvin Kamara was drafted in 2017, it was hard to think much of it. He was a talented Tennessee product who excelled in the passing game. A Payton prototype, in a way. Kamara mixed with Mark Ingram, however, turned out to be a deadly combination and exactly what Brees needed to get back on track.
In 2017, the Saints went back to passing about 57 percent of the time, a far cry from 63.44 percent the season before. Ingram’s ability off-tackle and Kamara’s talent between the tackles took the load off of Brees, who threw it just 536 times — his first time under 600 attempts since 2009. Brees also had just eight interceptions in 2017 and completed 72 percent of his passes for 4,334 yards. It was a version of Brees that had a quiet, methodical approach, and while completely different, it was perfect for a 38-year-old quarterback who maybe couldn’t move quite as well, but still had a ton of arm talent.
2018 was a perfection of this formula. On 489 attempts, Brees completed 74.4 percent of his passes for 3,992 yards. He had 32 touchdowns and just five picks. Both of these seasons would fall short, however. 2017 ended in the Minneapolis Miracle, while 2018 ended the one time refs decided to swallow the whistle, leading to the now-defunct pass interference review rule. Patrick Mahomes won MVP in 2018 — But Brees had every right to be a bigger part of this conversation.
2019-2020: Injury prone and fading
In his Saints career heading into 2019, Brees missed one game due to injury, a 2015 showdown with the Panthers. That came to a screeching halt in 2019, when Teddy Bridgewater had to take over for Brees after Brees injured his finger against the Rams early in the year. While Bridgewater did his job, going 5-0 for the Saints, Brees would eventually come back and finish out the year until another playoff loss to the Vikings.
In 2019, Brees’ efficiency was very much still there. he completed 74.3 percent of his passes, had 27 touchdowns and four interceptions on a hair shy of 3,000 yards. Brees went 8-3 as a starter and capped off a 13-3 season, but much like 2010, something felt a bit off for the Saints. Perhaps it was just because it felt like such a prove-it season after the no-call against the Rams, but while Brees had a chip on his shoulder, the passes were shorter. The lack of Ingram and an injured Kamara also hampered the Saints in 2019, but it wasn’t until 2020 when things kind of came crashing down.
In 2020, the Saints won their fourth straight division title. Brees went 9-3 as a starter and the Saints went 12-4. But when Brees faced Brady in the playoffs — after battling back from several cracked ribs and a myriad of other injuries — it became clear that Brady and the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers were too much for the Saints. A Jared Cook fumble led to a momentum shift that was too much to overcome, and we got the shots of a dejected — but proud — Brees taking one last look at the Superdome’s field as he left.
After the game, Brady and Brees talked on the field for a while with their kids, and it was clear that Brees wasn’t coming back. After a lot of hemming and hawing in the offseason once Brees brought his salary down to just over $1 million for next season, Brees officially announced his retirement on March 14, 15 years to the day of his signing in New Orleans.
Brees leaves behind a team significantly better than the one he joined. His legacy will be unmatched in New Orleans, and the amount that he put into the city is truly remarkable. We saw a lot of different versions of Brees throughout the years, and that speaks to him as a player and a teammate. From the gunslinging days of the 7-9 Saints when he was the only thing worth tuning in for to the final years when he was an absolute sniper, all of the versions of Brees will be remembered by Saints fans. But nothing will be as fondly remembered as Brees holding a headphone-clad Baylen among the confetti after Super Bowl XLIV.
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