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2017-2020: Drew Brees’ complicated playoffs legacy

An all-time great who was not great all the time

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“Icon: an object of uncritical devotion.”

This definition by the Merriam-Webster is something that is well known to sports fans everywhere: icons are untouchable, white doves flying in a blue sky, unsullied by the mud. Or so we would like to believe.

Writing about an icon, especially one that is about to retire is akin to giving a eulogy for a dear departed: who says anything even remotely bad about someone who’s not here anymore to defend themselves? Only a jerk of epic proportions, that is for sure. Today, that might be me.

Luckily for me, Drew Brees is alive and well, and although he certainly won’t read this piece or even feel the need to defend himself, I am fairly certain that many will do so in the comment section, and I welcome the interaction, and the discussion. But this piece is not an attack on Brees, it is an unflinching look at what happened on the field.

With Brees expected to announce this offseason that he will retire from NFL football after 20 seasons (5 with the San Diego Chargers, 15 with the New Orleans Saints), it felt appropriate to talk about the Saints’ quarterback’s legend, which for better or for worse, includes the last four years; four seasons that will inevitably be part of his legacy.

Drew Brees is an icon. Not just in New Orleans, in American football. He is football deity, a man once lost to a devastating injury, who not only found himself, but also guided an entire city and region to glory with him, as he was writing his redemption memoirs. He is also just a human being, despite what those who aptly nicknamed him “Breesus” would like to believe. And the thing that characterizes all human beings without a single exception (with all due respect to Benjamin Button), is that sooner or later time takes its toll. Time is relentless and even the best AdvoCare dietary supplements cannot build champions forever.

As he is now likely embarking on life after football, Brees leaves the New Orleans Saints much, much better than how he found them. Since his arrival in NOLA in 2006, the Saints have won a Super Bowl, played in three NFC Championship games, won seven division championships, made the playoffs nine times, including the past four years in a row. In other words, Brees, with is incredible accuracy, his intelligence on the field, his durability, turned the Saints into a perennial NFL contender. Who would’ve thought this possible in 2005, when New Orleans was reeling, and then-franchise owner Tom Benson was making flirty eyes with San Antonio? Not me, not you.

But despite all the accolades, the last four years have been more heartbreaking than celebratory for Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Since 2017, the Saints have had the talent to win it all, built on an incredible 2017 draft class, not unlike the 2006 one that led the team to the ultimate goal in Super Bowl XLIV. From 2017 to 2020, New Orleans won the most regular season games in the entire NFL (49), one game better than defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City (48). A blistering 49-15 regular season record that led to a measly 3-4 playoffs record and...nothing to show for it.

Drew Brees is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and the past four years will not change that. Still, they are part of his lore, especially in the playoffs. So, let’s look at the entirety of these years, season by season.

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2017

Regular season

Drew Brees had a “Drew Brees” regular season in 2017. Coming off what was the last of three straight 7-9 seasons in 2016, the signal-caller guided the Saints to an 11-5 record. Brees completed 72.0% of his passes, completing 386 of 536 attempts for 4,334 yards. He threw 23 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions, with an excellent 1.5% interception rate (ratio of interceptions thrown over the number of passes attempted), His quarterback rating for the regular season was 103.9.

Playoffs

The 2017 playoffs for the Saints will always be remembered by the so-called “Minneapolis Miracle,” a loss as inexplicable as it was gut-wrenching for Saints fans. But the Saints went 1-1 during that postseason, beating the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in the Wild Card round in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. For the entire playoffs, Brees completed 65.8% of his passes, throwing 5 touchdowns against 3 interceptions, and more than doubling his regular season interception rate from 1.5% to 4.1%. Although his quarterback rating was 100.8 for the two-game postseason, the low point came in the first half of the divisional playoff game against the Vikings in Minnesota: Brees had completed a grand total of 8 passes on 18 attempts for 117 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Saints were down 17-0 at halftime. To his credit, Brees would complete 17 of 22 passes in the second half with three touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the Saints to a one-point lead twice before the defense gagged the game away. The game of football however has two halves and Brees’ heroics in the second half could not erase his terrible first half, one that contributed to the Saints digging themselves a 17-point hole and ultimately to their loss.

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2018

Regular season

In the 2018 regular season, Brees broke his completion percentage record, with a staggering 74.4%. He threw for 3992 yards, with 32 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions, and an outstanding 1.0% interception rate (5 picks vs. 489 passing attempts). The Saints were 13-3, winning their second consecutive NFC South title.

Playoffs

Much like 2017, the 2018 postseason will always be remembered in Saints heartbreak lore, with the “NOLA No-Call” in the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. Brees’ playoffs once again were acceptable, but far from great: Although he completed 69.2% of his passes, Brees threw only 4 touchdowns passes against 2 interceptions, with the second interception being an ill-advised throw under pressure in overtime of the NFC Championship game. A ball that Brees should have swallowed for a sack and lived to play another down. Instead, the Rams took over at their own 46-yard line, and despite a stop by the defense, Los Angeles made a 57-yard field goal to win and go to Super Bowl LIII.

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2019

Regular season

In 2019, the Saints turned in another ho-hum 13-3 season. Despite missing five games with a thumb injury, Brees was stellar once again in the regular season, completing 74.3% of his passes, with 27 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, an excellent interception rate of 1.1% and a quarterback rating of 116.3.

Playoffs

But then the playoffs happened, and in a complete lackluster game in which he was outshined by Taysom Hill, Brees threw a touchdown and an interception. He also had a crucial fumble at the Vikings’ 20-yard line with 4:26 left in the fourth quarter, with the Saints trailing 20-17. For that one-game postseason, Brees threw for 208 yards, one touchdown, one pick and one fumble, with a paltry quarterback rating of 90.4. Not...great.

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2020

Regular season

Another regular season, another masterpiece: Brees completed 70.5% of his 390 passing attempts. For the second season, the Saints’ quarterback was sidelined by injuries, four games this time with fractured ribs. Ever the warrior, Brees played diminished and might have been better off taking more time to heal, which he did not. He finished the regular season with 24 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in 12 games, with a good quarterback rating of 106.4.

Playoffs

But the old bugaboo resurfaced, and by now you know that these past four years, Brees was no Batman in the playoffs. In fact, he wasn’t even Robin. For the two-game postseason, Brees threw as many touchdowns (3) as interceptions (3). Worse, the three interceptions were thrown in one game (against the Buccaneers) and all directly resulted into points for the Bucs, as the Saints would lose 30-20 to Tampa Bay. His quarterback rating for the postseason in 2020 was 75.1, the lowest in his Saints’ playoff career.

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In Conclusion

As Brees contemplates walking away from the game of football at age 42 with an incredibly accomplished career behind him, he leaves a beautiful legacy of courage, excellent on-the-field play, and success in New Orleans. Alas, as the twilight fell on his career, he also was more of a hindrance to a stacked Saints’ roster the past four years, a team that would have and should have gone to and won at least one more Super Bowl championship with better quarterback play.

As the numbers show, in 2017-2020, Brees tightened up considerably when the pressure got higher, which is in the postseason. His regular season numbers the past four years were outstanding, while in the postseason he became a run-of-the-mill, journeyman NFL quarterback.

As the Saints look towards a future without Drew Brees, and although success in the NFL is never guaranteed, New Orleans will benefit from its longtime quarterback retiring now if, and only if it can find an adequate replacement. Will that replacement have a better career than Brees? Not for a long shot. But can he be better than what Brees was for the Saints in the playoffs the last four years? Yes, he can! Now it’s the Saints’ job to either develop him (looking at you Jameis Winston) or sign him to the roster (looking at you, Matt Stafford). This is going to be an epic offseason.

Poll

Can the Saints be better without Brees moving forward?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    You are crazy and the answer is NO!
    (34 votes)
  • 30%
    Well, yes they can, he couldn’t throw anymore.
    (112 votes)
  • 51%
    They can, but it is no gimme.
    (188 votes)
  • 6%
    Let me say it again: NO! NO! NOOOOOOO!!!
    (24 votes)
  • 1%
    Can the Double Whopper be better than the Big Mac?
    (5 votes)
363 votes total Vote Now

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