Is Saints Quarterback Drew Brees in Decline?

Are "Number 9" days in New Orleans numbered? - Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, minutes after the Saints were eliminated from the National Football League divisional playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks, many people had harsh words for Drew Brees and his play during the 2013 season. Have Saints fans become spoiled like the stray cat?

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees turned 35 yesterday. As good wishes were heaped upon him by both fellow players and grateful Saints fans on social media, it was hard to forget that just a few days earlier, several of the same fans were wondering whether they had started seeing the deterioration of New Orleans' prolific signal caller.

Last Saturday, minutes after the Saints were eliminated from the National Football League divisional playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks, many were lamenting the poor play of Brees in crunch time during the 2013 season. Some even uttered a question that would have been unthinkable not too long ago: should the Saints seriously start thinking about who could be Brees' heir apparent?

While reading and listening to all those complaints, a story that I had heard before came back to mind: the story of a stray cat.

***

The Legend of the Stray Cat.

I heard that story years ago while watching a movie and for the life of me I can't remember which one; a famished stray cat was once rescued by a nice young man who started feeding it with this particular brand of cat food; it was the best thing the cat had ever eaten. After a few months however, as that brand of cat food was out of stock at the local store, the young man bought another brand, not only similar but just as good as the previous one.

The cat, at the young man's amazement, refused to eat it. Stunned, the young man thought to himself: here is this cat that had nothing to eat but filthy scraps for years; he gets used to eating this very nice, luxury cat food and becomes so demanding and spoiled that he refuses to eat something just as good, all because it is of a different brand.

Like the stray cat of the story, many Saints fans have clearly started taking Drew Brees' excellence for granted. In this instant-media age where our memory span is shorter than a tweet, all we remember is what we most recently saw. That is, Drew Brees struggling in the rain and a swirling wind at Century Link Field.

We complain about him not being able to carry the Saints to victory in a torrential downpour against the ferocious Panthers defense at Bank of America Stadium. We bemoan his paltry numbers against a Saint Louis Rams team that had so many players in the Saints backfield after each snap they could have played running back for New Orleans.

Brees has a 100 million dollars contract, so we want and expect him to be super-human. Otherwise, he is old, scared and flailing, because if we made 100 million dollars like him, we wouldn't be rattled and gun-shy if we were getting hit by three angry Seattle Seahawks pass rushers on each play. No, we wouldn't.

Brees is slowly, steadily declining, that must be it. Saints might even want to consider cutting him outright.

***

Please, say it ain't so?

Well, allow me to take the Drew Brees doubters head on and see what they have left once I have rested my case.

First, let's take a quick look if you will, at Brees' numbers and their NFL rank during the past five years, which of course include 2009, the year the Saints won the Superbowl.

Brees

Att.

Comp.

Comp. %

Yds/Pass

TD

Int.

Int. %

Rating

2009

514/10th

363/4th

70.6/1st

8.54/3rd

34/1st

11/11th

2.1/6th

109.6/1st

2010

658/2nd

448/2nd

68.1/1st

7.02/16th

33/2nd

22/30th

3.3/2nd

90.8/12th

2011

657/2nd

468/1st

71.2/1st

8.33/6th

46/1st

14/20th

2.1/8th

110.6/2nd

2012

670/2nd

422/3rd

63.0/10th

7.73/6th

43/1st

19/31st

2.8/19th

96.4/8th

2013

650/3rd

446/2nd

68.6/2nd

7.94/7th

39/2nd

12/22nd

1.8/8th

104.7/6th

Att. = Passing attempts - Comp. = Completions - Yds/Pass = Yards per Pass -

TD = Touchdowns - Int. = Interceptions

***

Now let us have a little fun analyzing these numbers year by year.

***

2009: Glory, Glory Hallelujah.

This was Brees' best year as an NFL pro, in my opinion. Some will cite 2011 as being better, but I believe 2009 takes the crown. Brees was 10th in the NFL in passing attempts, the only year in the past five in which he has been outside the top three in attempts. Thus his high numbers weren't the result of volume passing. Accordingly, this is also the only time he led the league in passer rating and had his lowest number of interceptions as a Saints with 11 (he tied that number in 2006). Of course, he led the Saints to their first Superbowl championship and finished the postseason without a single interception.

***

2010: The Hangover.

If you are looking for a number that empirically describes how efficient or not a season has been for Brees, look no further than his passer rating and his NFL ranking in that category. Brees dropped from 1st in 2009 to 12th in the league with a 90.8 passer rating. Coming off a Superbowl victory and a regular season in which he only threw 11 interceptions, Brees doubled his number of picks with 22. Despite throwing the ball 658 times (144 more attempts than in 2009) he still led the league with a 68.1 completion percentage. The Saints went to the playoffs and lost in the Wild Card round at Seattle.

***

2011: The Missed Opportunity.

Strictly by the numbers, this is arguably Brees' best season. He passed Dan Marino for most passing yards in a single season with 5476 (as you may have noticed, I didn't put total yards in my table, as they're one of the most misleading statistic). Brees was second in the league in passer rating at 110.6 (better than his 2009 passer rating) and was only beaten out by Aaron Rodgers who had an insane rating of 122.4, although he achieved that throwing the ball 155 times less than Brees. That lower number of attempts obviously made it easier for Rodgers to throw fewer interceptions (only 6 to Brees' 14). The Saints made the playoffs for the third year in a row and lost in the divisional round at San Francisco.

***

2012: The Year from Hell.

With Sean Payton suspended for the year, Brees tried to take the Saints on his back and that didn't always lead to good things in 2012. He had the highest number pass attempts of his Saints career with 670 (2nd in the league) and his lowest completion percentage (63.0, 10th in the league). He also threw 19 interceptions (which ranked him 31st in the NFL) and a passer rating of 96.4 (8th in the NFL). With no real captain to guide the Saints ship and a well-documented porous defense, Brees still led the Saints to a 7-9 record and finished the year at the top of the league in touchdown passes with 43.

***

2013: The Missed Opportunity, Part II.

This year, Sean Payton, the "quarterback whisperer" returned from his one-year suspension but proved to be quite rusty at times. Or maybe he just returned to his old ways of 2007 and 2008. Once again, Brees was asked to shoulder a bit too much of the load, attempting 650 passes (3rd in the league). What seems to be eluding most observers however is that in 2013, Brees threw 39 touchdown passes. That's his third-highest number since becoming a Saint (46 in 2011, 43 in 2012). More importantly, he threw is third lowest number on interceptions as a Saint with 12 (11 in both 2006 and 2009). His passer rating of 104.7 marks just the third time he has been over the century mark since arriving in New Orleans (109.6 in 2009, 110.6 in 2011). Finally, he helped the Saints to their first-ever road playoff win in the Wild Card round against the Philadelphia Eagles.

***

So you're saying it ain't that bad?

Other than 2009 (the Superbowl year) and 2011 (the records year), Drew Brees had a better season in 2013 than any other year in his time as the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. That includes 2006, when he led the Saints to the NFC Championship game in Chicago.

At age 35, Brees certainly isn't getting younger. With a head coach that has him throwing the ball an average of over 600 times a year, he probably doesn't have another 10 years playing at this high a level.

However, when you look around the league and consider quarterbacks that are still on top of their game at a relatively advanced age like Peyton Manning (37) or Tom Brady (36), that gives you a good indication that Brees, who is younger than those two, has at least three to five very good years left in him.

Football is the ultimate team sport. To maximize their window of opportunity while they have Brees, what the New Orleans Saints have to do is surround him with the right pieces. If they do so, the possibility of a second Superbowl trophy in the Big Easy is very likely to become a reality before "Number 9" rides into the sunset.

***

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