When Sean Payton and Drew Brees came to New Orleans together in 2006, it was impossible to know what was about to happen to the Saints organization. Brees was an above-average quarterback coming off of arthroscopic surgery to repair torn right labrum, whereas Payton was a first-time head coach who avoided being fired by the Giants by getting poached from the Cowboys.
Brees only had one other serious suitor in 2006 — the Miami Dolphins — who ultimately decided to trade for Dante Culpepper after team doctors indicated signing him wasn’t the best move. The Saints took a chance on the then 27-year-old QB, and paired him with Payton in an offseason that also saw them select Reggie Bush with the second pick in the NFL draft.
The Brees era began with a 2-0 start with wins over the Browns and Packers, but didn’t start in earnest until Week 3 against the Falcons. The date? September 25, 2006 — the day the Saints returned to the Superdome after spending a year displaced due to Hurricane Katrina. With the Monday Night Football energy in the Dome, you’d never have guessed the fans were there for a team that went 3-13 just a year prior. While the moment that lives in fame belongs to Steve Gleason, the rest of the game was actually fairly uneventful. The 23-3 win didn’t see another touchdown after the blocked punt, though Brees turned in an efficient 20 of 28 performance for 191 yards. Those 70-plus completion percentage games would become a hallmark of his accuracy.
In Week 13, the Saints got a real glimpse of the Drew Brees experience. He went 26 of 38 passing for 384 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. It was a 42-17 rout against he team Payton had been an assistant coach for just a year prior. Brees connected with 10 different receivers in the game, showing his ability to spread the ball and read a defense before the snap. It was one of those games that made fans realize they had something special.
The Saints would end up going to the NFC Championship Game after a Divisional Round win over the Eagles — the second playoff win in team history. Brees did all he could in a 39-14 losing effort, throwing the ball a ridiculous 49 times. The Saints lost the turnover battle 4-0, a deficit they simply overcome, but the message were clear: These weren’t the same Saints. They went from 3-13 to 10-6 and second in the NFC. They would be back.
That road back, however, was far from easy. Saints fans will undoubtedly being in limbo in between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. However, the wait in 2007 and 2008 was almost worse. Brees was putting up video game numbers. He logged his first 5,000-yard season in 2008, and he had 34 touchdown passes. However, he was averaging over an interception a game. The Saints were 26th in the NFL in yards allowed in 2007 and 23rd in 2008. They needed to get more efficient.
In 2009, the difference was readily apparent. The entire team looked more efficient, the defense looked more confident, and perhaps most importantly, the offense was protecting the ball. The Saints finished the season third in the league in turnover differential at +11. Brees completed 70 percent of his passes for the first time in his career. He had 34 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, the Saints had settled on a gameplan that worked for them, and the rest is history.
The Saints passed the ball just 55 percent of the time in ‘09. It was the most efficient season of Brees’ early years with the Saints. It’s no accident it was their Super Bowl year. Brees had brought a city that nearly lost its football team all the way back from the brink, he was a Super Bowl MVP, and he did it against the perceived best quarterback in the league: Peyton Manning. Saints don’t need a reminder of how 2009 felt. They always have this image to remind them:
Brees had not only brought the Saints out of football hell. They were now Super Bowl champions. Just two years later, in 2011, Brees put up one of the most absurd statistical seasons in NFL history. He had 5,476 yards passing (his second 5,000-plus yard season and the first of three in a row), 46 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The 2011 Saints were an absolute juggernaut and looked destined for a deep run, only to be derailed by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round.
If the Saints were in football hell until 2006, they were about to enter football purgatory. Four of the next five seasons were teeth-grinding 7-9 slogs, with Brees’ consistent greatness being undermined by historically bad defenses. Brees turned the ball over more often trying to keep the Saints in games, while consistently throwing for 300-plus yards per game. It always felt like the Saints were a piece or two away, but in 2017 he — and the Saints — got a makeover.
2017 brought some fresh faces into the mold for the Saints. Michael Thomas was going into his second season, while Alvin Kamara had just joined the team. The tandem of Mark Ingram and Kamara became the focus of the offense, and Brees was happy to give them the spotlight. For the first time since 2009, 2017 saw Brees throw the ball fewer than 600 times. Also for the first time since 2011, Brees found himself with a completion percentage above 70 percent (in the interest of fairness, he was at exactly 70 in 2016). He was efficient, he was smart with the ball, and for the first time in his Saints career he finished with single-digit interceptions in a season.
While the 2017 season ended with the Minneapolis Miracle, 2018 saw an even more deadly efficient version of Brees. He completed a career-high 74.4 percent of his passes, threw a mere five interceptions, and broke Peyton Manning’s passing yardage record en route to a 13-3 record. In what could have been the Saints year, however, the non-call happened in the NFC Championship Game, and the Rams would eventually lose in the Super Bowl to the Patriots.
2019 and 2020, unfortunately, never fielded quite the same player. While we saw some longevity records fall in that span — most notably the touchdowns record in 2019 — a torn ligament in his thumb sidelined Brees in 2019 while 11 cracked ribs took him out in 2020. The Saints were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in the Divisional Round by the Vikings in overtime in 2019 and the Buccaneers in 2020 following the worst playoff showing of Brees’ career. While it’s a difficult pill to swallow, time doesn’t care if you have unfinished business. In fact, it only seems to make it more ravenous.
Brees, however, will always be revered by Saints fans — even if the reactions to his exit may be brash and harsh. He came to a city that desperately needed something to cling onto, and gave them a Saints team that was good enough to hate when things went wrong. While most teams fade into the background of their cityscape when they struggled, the Saints remained a fixture of New Orleans, and that’s in large part due to Brees’ contributions.
Should he retire, Brees will be on top in passing yards at 80,358, highest career completion percentage at 67 percent, most career completions with 7,142, most touchdowns in a game with seven (in a barnburner against the Giants that the Saints defense simply refused to let him pull away in), and most consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54.
Brees is the kind of player whose legacy will grow after he retires. He was overshadowed in potential MVP seasons in 2009 by Manning, 2011 by Aaron Rodgers and 2018 by Patrick Mahomes. He has one ring and a Super Bowl MVP. His passing yardage record will likely be surpassed by Tom Brady. But he brought a ring to a franchise that wasn’t just in a drought. It was downtrodden. It looked like it could move. In many ways, Brees saved the Saints.
He reinvented himself three times over in his career. And he did all of this as a quarterback a new coach and team took a flier on coming off of a surgery. Whatever you think of Brees’ finish, as heartbreaking as it may be, it was undoubtedly a hell of a ride. Saints fans can always point at Brees as the player who made them believe in their team again. The Saints will be back. But if this is the end for Brees, there will always be a spot for No. 9 in New Orleans.
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