First things first: The days of the 2011 Air Raid New Orleans Saints are behind us. But that is, by no means, a bad thing. Drew Brees is not the problem with the New Orleans Saints. He arguably was A problem in their heartbreaking Wild Card loss to the Vikings, but he wasn’t the cause of the loss. With that in mind, the Saints need to ride their Hall of Fame quarterback for as long as they can moving forward.
The one thing the Saints are missing in the past three years is a Super Bowl appearance. 2017, 2018 and 2019 have given Saints fans the most successful consecutive three-year stretch in the team’s history. It’s yielded a divisional appearance, a conference championship appearance, and a Wild Card appearance off a 13-3 record. And the great part about it is, it’s asking less of Brees than ever.
Brees won’t throw for 5,000 yards again in his career. But all one needs to do is look at this season to see why that doesn’t ultimately matter. In terms of raw passing yards, the top five teams in the NFL didn’t make the playoffs. However, the Saints were tied with the Chiefs for second in the league in terms of efficiency. Their weighted offense was second in the league behind the Ravens. The Saints got better as the year went on, they just hit a speed bump against the Vikings and totaled their car.
Brees has always been better when he’s asked to be efficient, rather than Superman. Before 2017, his lowest passing total with the Saints was in 2009, when he threw for “only” 4,388 yards. The Saints, of course, won the Super Bowl that year. He also threw for 11 interceptions in ‘09, tied for his lowest as a Saint. In the past three seasons, Brees has thrown eight, five and four picks, respectively. So he isn’t giving the ball away.
The quarterback question also can’t be asked without considering a replacement. Teddy Bridgewater played very well for the Saints when he was thrust into action over a tough five-game stretch was hurt this year. But his intended average air yards were 6.2, the lowest in the NFL this season among eligible quarterbacks. Brees’ was at 6.7, the fourth-lowest in the league. Bridgewater wasn’t doing things Brees couldn’t, he was doing slightly less than Brees was doing very well.
None of the free agents in 2020 would fill the void losing Brees would cause outside of perhaps Dak Prescott, which means the attention would turn to the draft. In this scenario, the Saints would likely keep Bridgewater while also drafting a replacement to groom. The Saints have the 24th pick in this year’s draft, which would put them in Jake Fromm or Jacob Eason range. The alternative would be to trade into the top-10 to get a player like Justin Herbert — which would cost entirely too much capital.
Independent of all of this, however, is the fact that Brees is the Saints’ best option moving forward — contingent upon Sean Payton adapting and making some changes. The biggest concern with Brees is that he appears to have lost some trust on third-and-mid. Two separate plays in the Wild Card round to mind. One was a shovel to Alvin Kamara coming in motion across the formation that was stuffed, the other a bubble screen that was bottled up. When you have a first down machine like Michael Thomas, a straight dropback is the better option. Why take the ball out of your Hall-of-Fame quarterback’s hands?
But Brees isn’t absolved of all blame. The late-game fumble was a huge setback for the Saints, and the third-down arm punt interception gave the Vikings phenomenal field position that was later punched in. Those were uncharacteristic mistakes, and although the former was caused by pressure, sometimes as a quarterback you have to take the sack, particularly if what Brees said postgame about a route not being run is true.
With that being said, Brees had a game this year in which he completed 29 of 30 passes and broke another major record. But this isn’t about record chasing. It’s about winning another Super Bowl. At the end of the day, the Saints were 8-3 with Brees at the helm this season. They were the No. 1 seed in the NFL a season ago. The success is there, they just haven’t cleared that last hurdle.
The Saints still have a lot of talent headed into 2020, but Brees is emblematic of the philosophy change the Saints are in the middle of. He needs help now, but the good news is he has it. The defense is still strong, and the offensive line should stay intact next season. Brees had perhaps his worst game of the season outside of the first Falcons matchup at an inopportune time, and the offensive line struggled as well. That doesn’t mean you punt on him going forward. It simply means that you adapt, something that Payton has been more than capable of doing in the past.