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Saints: Drew Brees' Decline is Vastly Overstated

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Five games into the 2014 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints are 2-3 instead of 5-0 or 4-1, like most expected them to be. Disgruntled fans and media are blaming the team's struggles on the supposed waning arm strength of quarterback Drew Brees. In my opinion, all the angst is mostly overreaction borne of misplaced offseason expectations.

Brees has channeled his inner Brett Favre a lot as of late.
Brees has channeled his inner Brett Favre a lot as of late.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints (2-3), a popular offseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in 2014, started the season looking like anything but a serious Super Bowl contender. Bruised and battered both mentally and physically, the Saints have sputtered their way to a 2-3 record and are now limping into a much-needed bye week. As is often the case with an underachieving team, the fans and the media alike look for the reasons behind the team's struggles. Sometimes they just look for any answer, whether legitimate or not.

The latest attempt to justify the Saints struggles is the growingly popular belief that Brees' arm strength is waning. The Saints sit near the bottom of the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more and they have had a hard time with consistency on offense. What more to explain the Saints offensive demise if not the slow and steady decline of New Orleans' signal caller?

But wait: what about Brees' vanishing arm strength in 2007? Or his so-so start of 2008? How about the low completion percentage of 2012? Along with 2014, these are the only other years in which the Saints were under .500 after five games since Sean Payton took over in New Orleans.

Let's take a quick look at Brees' numbers through five games in each of those years. The numbers described in each of the tables below are: Passing attempts (Att), completed passes (Cmp), passing yards (Yds), completion percentage (Cmp%), percentage of touchdown passes (TD%) and interceptions (INT%) with regards to the total number of passing attempts, yards per attempts (Yds/Att), longest touchdown pass (LG), number of sacks and resulting yards lost (Sack/Lost) and the quarterback rating (Rating).

***

2007

The Saints had a 1-4 record after five games that year and infamously started the season 0-4.

Date

Opponent

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

9/6

@ Indianapolis

41

28

192

68.3

4.68

0

0.0

2

4.9

23

1/5

58.2

9/16

@ Tampa Bay

44

26

260

59.1

5.91

1

2.3

1

2.3

58

2/16

74.1

9/24

Tennessee

45

29

225

64.4

5.00

0

0.0

4

8.9

37

1/7

39.6

10/7

Carolina

47

29

252

61.7

5.36

0

0.0

2

4.3

54

0/0

58.1

10/14

@ Seattle

36

25

246

69.4

6.83

2

5.6

0

0.0

36

0/0

106.9

TOTALS

213

137

1175

64.6

5.60

3

1.6

9

4.1

58

4/28

67.4

2007 was a very poor year for Brees, as the numbers easily bear out. The Saints quarterback had only three touchdown passes (1.6 TD%) against 9 interceptions (4.1 TD%) after five games. Even more frightening for Saints fans, Brees had an incredibly low 67.4 quarterback rating. Coming off a year where they went to the NFC Championship game in 2006, fears about Brees' stellar 2006 season being a fluke could have been legitimate after five games in 2007. As history would show, these fears were ill-conceived. Let's take a look at 2008.

***

2008

In the same way they started the 2014 season, New Orleans had a 2-3 record after five games, on their way to an 8-8 record. Here are the numbers:

Date

Opponent

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

9/7

Tampa Bay

32

23

343

71.9

10.72

3

9.4

1

3.1

84t

1/6

124.9

9/14

@ Washington

33

22

216

66.7

6.55

1

3.0

2

6.1

22

2/21

69.8

9/21

@ Denver

48

39

421

81.3

8.77

1

2.1

0

0.0

74

1/7

110.2

9/28

San Francisco

35

23

363

65.7

10.37

3

8.6

1

2.9

81

0/0

116.7

10/6

Minnesota

46

26

330

56.5

7.17

1

2.2

2

4.3

52

1/10

68.2

TOTALS

194

133

1673

68.4

8.72

9

5.1

6

3.3

84

5/24

97.9

In 2008, Brees had an eerily similar start to 2014 (see chart below). The Saints quarterback had, as usual, an excellent completion percentage (68.4). A very good yards-per-attempt number (8.72) and a good quarterback rating (97.9). New Orleans showed a higher propensity to the big plays, with long touchdown passes through five games, the longest being 84 yards. These 2007 and 2008 numbers, if they were indicative of any decline by Brees, certainly didn't show up in 2009, when the Saints quarterback had an amazing season, leading the Saints to their first Super Bowl title while leading the league in QB rating.

***

2012

In the third year in which the Saints had a less than .500 record after five games, New Orleans, like in 2007, had a 1-4 record.

Date

Opponent

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

9/9

Washington

52

24

339

46.2

6.52

3

5.8

2

3.8

33t

2/13

70.9

9/16

@ Carolina

49

31

325

63.3

6.63

1

2.0

2

4.1

29

1/2

72.2

9/23

Kansas City

36

20

240

55.6

6.67

3

8.3

1

2.8

36

4/35

92.4

9/30

@ Green Bay

54

35

446

64.8

8.26

3

5.6

0

0.0

80t

2/17

109.0

10/7

San Diego

45

29

370

64.4

8.22

4

8.9

1

2.2

41

3/19

110.4

TOTALS

236

139

1720

58.9

7.26

14

6.1

6

2.6

80

12/86

90.9

Without Sean Payton on the sidelines and a putrid defense, the Saints put everything on Brees' decaying arm, having him attempt 236 passes after five games (an insane 47.2 passes per game), and leading to a much lower completion percentage (58.9) with regards to Brees' passing standards. All the other numbers however, look pretty impressive, most notably the very low interception percentage (2.6 INT%) despite the very high amount of passing attempts. How about the year that you probably all really want to know about?

***

2014

This is the year that has everyone wondering whether Brees is nearly done as an NFL quarterback. Larry Holder who covers the Saints for the Times Picayune even wrote this piece saying that the debate is now open on whether Brees is officially in decline. Well, aren't we all?

Date

Opponent

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

9/7

@ Atlanta

42

29

333

69.0

7.93

1

2.4

1

2.4

57

0/0

90.7

9/14

@ Cleveland

40

27

237

67.5

5.93

2

5.0

1

2.5

23

2/14

89.3

9/21

Minnesota

35

27

293

77.1

8.37

2

5.7

0

0.0

34t

1/5

120.3

9/28

@ Dallas

44

32

340

72.7

7.73

2

4.5

1

2.3

46

1/4

100.6

10/5

Tampa Bay

57

35

371

61.4

6.51

2

3.5

3

5.3

37

0/0

70.1

TOTALS

218

150

1574

69.5

7.30

9

4.2

6

2.5

57

4/23

94.2

The striking fact here, if we're talking about arm strength, is that of the longest touchdown passes for the Saints in each of the first five games, only one went over 50 yards, implying that Brees now possesses a noodle, right where he used to have a bicep. Of course, Brees also has an excellent completion rate (69.5) and a fairly low interception percentage (2.5) despite his three INTs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. His quarterback rating (94.2) is pretty good as well.

Compared to his "declining" year of 2007, Brees' total numbers in 2014 are better in pretty much every category as you can see below. If we're to believe the mass hysteria surrounding the Saints quarterback's so-called decline of 2014, Brees should probably have retired following the 2007 season.

2007

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

TOTALS

213

137

1175

64.6

5.6

3

1.6

9

4.1

58

4/28

67.4

2014

Att

Cmp

Yds

Cmp%

Yds/Att

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

LG

Sack/Lost

Rating

TOTALS

218

150

1574

69.5

7.30

9

4.2

6

2.5

57

4/23

94.2

Yes, Brees was 28 years old in 2007 and seven years later, Father Time may be eventually catching up with him. However, despite the fact that he nearly cost the Saints the game against Tampa Bay with three-ill-advised interceptions, Brees has yet to consistently show that he's on the express way down as an NFL quarterback.

His arm strength can't possibly be what it was seven years ago, but the Saints quarterback still is a great NFL quarterback, that simply has yet to play his best this year. With the bye week arriving after a win, New Orleans (2-3) can positively regroup, recharge and try to right the ship in two weeks at Detroit. Under Sean Payton, the Saints haven't lost following a bye week, which should give Saints fans a lot of hope for the upcoming game in the Motor City.

I have the sneaky suspicion that we haven't seen the last of a dominant Drew Brees at the helm for the Saints, not only in 2014, but at least for the next two to three years.