The 2017 Saints season was perhaps the first season in the Drew Brees era in which he was not the focal point, both in terms of the team’s success and the narrative built around the team from the national media. If you didn’t watch the Saints play last year and only heard about their success through ESPN or other media outlets, you’d probably think something like this: “The Saints were very good in 2017, due in large part to their offensive line, running backs, and a youthful defense that finally did its part. The pieces around Brees allowed the Saints to find success despite the veteran’s physical decline.” That’s not too far removed from reality, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that Brees wasn’t just good last year, he was stellar.
Let’s talk about it.
First, let’s start with some numbers. If you hate math, don’t like numbers, or think stats are for nerds, that’s fine. Statistics can’t tell the whole story, but you can’t get the whole story without them. If you want some more qualitative analysis, just scroll down and skip this part. My advice would be to just save this in the event that someone hits you with a “BUT I BET THE SAINTS WOULD RATHER HAVE CARSON WENTZ” argument.
Here is a chart detailing where Brees ranks compared to his “peers” (because come on, is Andy Dalton really Brees’ peer?) in several different statistical categories. In order to have qualified for this statistical comparison, the quarterback needed to pass for at least 3,000 yards during the course of the 2017 regular season.
This perfectly encapsulates the absurdly high standard that Drew Brees has set for himself: a season in which Brees finished 4th in passing yards is considered a “down year” for the quarterback. Not included in the list is total passing touchdowns, but there is a reason for that. Simply put, Brees wasn’t given the opportunity to throw touchdown passes at the same rate as previous years because of the potency of the Saints rushing attack. While Brees ranked 11th in passing touchdowns, the Saints as a team ranked 1st in rushing touchdowns with a total of 23 on the year. Not only did they rank 1st, but it was by an enormous margin: the Dallas Cowboys ranked 2nd in the league at 18 touchdowns, a hefty 5 touchdowns behind the Saints. For comparison, the gap between the Saints in 1st place and the Cowboys was the same as the gap between the Cowboys (2nd) and the Oakland Raiders (11th).
Despite throwing for the fewest touchdowns in his career as a New Orleans Saint, he was the best in the league in several significant categories. He broke the record for completion percentage in a single season, ranking 1st at 72%. For the haters that enjoy the feeling of being incorrect with the assertion that he dinks-and-dunks down the field (*ahem* Falcons fans*), he also ranked 1st in the league in both yards-per-attempt AND in passes of over 20+ yards. To sum that up: he completed passes at the highest rate ever seen in an NFL season, for the highest average yardage of any QB in the league, and for the largest number of chunk plays. That’s a lot of “highest/best/largest” for somebody that is supposedly in decline.
The numbers show that Brees was spectacular yet again in 2017; the film backs that notion. A common misconception among casual football viewers is that arm strength is most accurately displayed in deep passes. While arm strength helps in deep passing, the timing, arc of the pass, and location matters more for deep throws. In actuality, arm strength matters most on throws in which the quarterback is required to drive a pass into a coverage window with velocity. This shows up most commonly in intermediate throws to the boundary. There were a number of beautiful throws from the 2017 season, but this throw in particular stands out because it dispels the idea that his arm strength has severely deteriorated.
Let’s put the throw in context: Brees throws the ball with his back foot on the far left hash and the pass lands perfectly into the hands of Willie Snead 23 yards downfield, between the deep 3rd defender and the curl/flat defender on the right sideline. This is a pass that requires a certain degree of arm strength to complete; without this arm strength threshold, the ball will hang in the air and allow the cornerback to make a play on it. Further improving how impressive this throw is, this occurred in Week 15. One common belief is that arm strength of veteran quarterbacks deteriorates as the season wears on; the timing of this play provides evidence against that theory.
Now, I’m not saying that Brees has the same level of physical ability that he had in 2009. However, he hasn’t lost arm strength to the degree that the Saints would need to alter their playbook around his capabilities (or lack thereof). He’s still fully capable of any throw he made prior in his career, while being similarly agile and quick-footed.
You can still see clearly that he’s a much better athlete than either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning at their respective advanced ages. Throughout his career, his ability as a thrower has come in large part from his picture-perfect mechanics. His arm strength is mostly a product of the power he generates from his legs and torso, which is why he’s so dangerous when given a clean pocket in which he can step up.
At the time of writing this, Drew Brees is still scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. However, I think we can safely assume that he will be a Saint in 2018. Given that assumption, and the performance he gave the team in 2017, we can continue to expect the Saints to win because of his outstanding ability, rather than in spite of his diminishing skills.
The 2018 New Orleans Saints should be full-fledged Super Bowl contenders. Over the course of the next 6 months, while we wait around in football-starvation, you’ll see several articles suggest the reason for the team’s ability to contend is mostly due to the outstanding young talent around Brees. While I don’t dispute the fact that this team is wildly talented and young, let’s make no mistake: the No. 1 reason that the New Orleans Saints are Super Bowl contenders is because their best player is still playing like one of the greatest players of all time, at the single most important position in any sport.
Don’t be afraid to have high expectations for 2018. What else can we expect from the GOAT other than greatness?
How would you grade Drew Brees’ 2017?
This poll is closed
Excellent, he’s still elite
Good to great at times
Decent to good
I didn’t watch Saints football, so he’s in decline because the national media told me so