20 October 2011

As Goes Brees

After watching the Saints lose to Tampa last weekend and then contemplating the Saints' next opponent, the Colts, I considered the many similarities between the Drew Brees-led Saints and the Peyton Manning-led Colts. 

Mostly, my thoughts centered around the winless 2011 Colts and how their team was rendered almost completely incapable without Peyton Manning. Then I thought, "would this same principle hold true for the Saints?"

Before we look any deeper, I also briefly considered The New England Patriots. If you remember back to 2008, the Patriots lost Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first week of the season. Even in Brady's absence, the Patriots won eleven games that season with unproven Matt Cassel at the helm. 

This disparity in outcomes has starkly illustrated the disparity in both the Patriots and the Colts franchises: one team (the Colts) has been almost completely dependent on the fortunes of one player (Manning), while the other team (the Patriots) has built a sustainable model and roster depth to handle the unpredictability of every season. 

So where do the Saints fit into this? Are the Saints like the Colts? Are they basically a one-man team? I realize that in even considering this, it's tremendously insulting to the many other professionals within the Saints' organization to speculate that their efforts are potentially marginally impactful and, instead, the fate of the team rests mostly on the performance of one elite player. It's disconcerting to say the least. 

Over the course of Drew Brees' career in New Orleans, it's been conventional wisdom, by my estimation, that the Saints' fortunes have largely hinged upon the success of Drew Brees. It's always seemed like Brees has shouldered a disproportionate burden of responsibility for winning and losing. Really, that's a good thing because Brees is so good. But can it be better?

Moreover, it seems like even in the games Brees plays at a high level, the Saints still sometime struggle. 

So I went back and looked at all the games of the Drew Brees era in New Orleans. Specifically, I wanted to see how the Saints fared when Brees played subpar; when he played well; and when he played outstanding. 

I did this, simply, by correlating Brees' passer ratings to wins and losses. Before I go any further, let's quickly review the Passer Rating statistic. This stat is used by the NFL to judge a QB's performance from game to game; it's essentially a jumbled amalgam that values the importance of the different QB benchmarks--yards, TDs, interceptions, completion percentage, yards per attempt, etc. 

A perfect passer rating is 158.3. To give us some context going forward, here are the rankings of the top-8 career passer ratings in NFL history (minimum 70 games played). 

In the 91 games Brees has played as a Saint, his average rating in games the Saints have won is a blistering 107.3 (57 games). 

In Saints' losses, his rating is a pedestrian 81.4 (34 games). 

By comparison, Manning's rating in Colts' wins is 104.3; his rating in losses is 80.9. Brady's rating in Patriots' wins is 101.6; his rating in losses is 70.

Further, in Saints' wins Brees' rating is almost 15 points higher than his average; Manning's is a bit less than 10 points higher than average in Colts' wins; and Brady's is exactly 6 points higher than his average in Patriots' wins. 

Does Brees have to play substantially better than his average for the Saints to win? 

In short, Brees plays much better than his average in Saints' victories, whereas Manning and Brady (to an even lesser extent) aren't forced to exceed their averages as substantially in their teams' respective wins. Does this indicate that the Saints are even more dependent on Brees than the Colts are on Manning? 

Looking a bit deeper, here is a breakdown of how the Saints fare when Brees' passer ratings fall within these ranges. 

As you can see, the better Brees performs, the more the Saints win. I know, groundbreaking stuff here. 

That the Saints are a combined 51-15 (77%) when Brees rates over 80 illustrates just how dependent the Saints are on Brees. 

Conversely, when Brees' performance has fallen below a passer rating of 80, the Saints are an atrocious 6-19 (24%). In the subpar games that Brees has played, the Saints have not been able to muster any sort of antidote to compensate. 

This isn't a criticism of Brees, of course. In fact, it's just the opposite. 

Because Brees is most often at his best, or close enough to it that the difference is negligible, his talents potentially mask--or at least compensate for--the various shortcomings of the rest of the team. When Brees doesn't excel game-to-game, the Saints struggle.

The challenge for the Saints in 2011 and beyond, in my opinion, is for the defense to provide some semblance of balance to the Saints' fortunes. I obviously can't speak for all Saints' fans, but the prospect of the Saints mirroring the Manning-era Colts is not all that appealing to me. At least, it's not the ideal scenario lest I be thought of as greedy or thankless for a consistently successful Saints' team.

If you recall, those Colts teams have been mostly excellent in the regular season but have too frequently faltered in the postseason, possibly because they relied much too heavily on Peyton Manning. 

If the Saints intend on winning multiple Super Bowls with the Brees at the helm, it's incumbent upon them to devise layers of support beneath Brees so as to be able to withstand the infrequent subpar game from their leader. Thus far, the Saints have been less than spectacular at doing this. 

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