13 December 2013

The Unrelenting No. 9

When Drew Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, who thought Brees was poised to be an all-timer?

No one, save for perhaps Brees, even pondered that possibility.

But eight years later, that's exactly what he has become: one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

An idea implausible in 2006, and maybe an idea still implausible to those who don't pay close enough attention, is in 2013 an oft-confirmed reality.

In a wider context, considering the Saints' tortured history at the quarterback position, the seeming impossibility of what Brees has accomplished makes his ascension all the more distinct.

The disparity between that initial expectation level and the current reality is staggering.

The first glimpse of what's now considered "Vintage Brees" came during the 2006 regular season, in a week six game against Philadelphia.

In that game, the Saints built a 17-3 halftime lead. By the fourth quarter, the Saints had ceded 21 unanswered points and were trailing 24-17. To most of us, this blown lead was "Vintage Saints" in progress. Same ol' Saints and all that.

Brees, though, had another idea.

Early in the fourth quarter, he hit Joe Horn for a game-tying 48-yard touchdown. Then, with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the tied game, Brees orchestrated the kind of drive that's become one of his trademarks. On that drive Brees went 8/8, connecting with six different Saints. The offense calmly and methodically bled the clock down to three seconds, and John Carney kicked the short winning field goal. Game over. Saints win.

Pre-Brees, the Saints never won those type of games.

Then again, this was a new day and it was one of many turning points, or maybe just revelations, during Brees's tenure in New Orleans.

During this past weekend's Saints-Panthers' game, we saw another routinely great Drew Brees performance.

On Sunday night against Carolina, a team whose defense had surrendered a meager twelve touchdowns all season, Brees accounted for four touchdowns (nearly scoring a fifth) while Saints' and NFL fans batted nary an eye.

Impressive as it was, it wasn't all that surprising. We've seen it countless times.

Though Carolina's defense has been excellent this year--one of the best in the league--it was no match for Brees who systematically disassembled a group that had, to that point, allowed just 13.1 points per game.

This was the same sort of de-puzzling that has defined Brees's career in New Orleans, one where, when given enough time to make pre-snap reads and cycle through his progressions, Brees instigates the rout.

It's an art of calamity: graceful execution on one end precipitating an unalterable catastrophe on the other, a kind of reimagined butterfly effect.

If that was all familiar and mundane, Brees eclipsed 50,000 yards passing for his career, a benchmark that aligns him with the NFL's incomparable greats at the position: Favre, Peyton, Marino, and Elway.

Think about that for a second.

After years of a bumbling Aaron Brooks; the comical symmetry of Ditka's Billy Joes; the fruitless reclamations of Jim Everett, Heath Shuler, and Kerry Collins; the not-quite-good-enough Bobby Hebert era; and the what-could've-been Archie Manning era, the Saints, suddenly, field one of the all-time greats at quarterback.

It's a bit mind-boggling, all things considered.

Even more impressively Brees reached 50,000 yards faster than any of those aforementioned players, emphatically reaffirming that, while he's frequently left unmentioned, or at least relegated to a second tier, among the game's all-time greats, he's outpacing them in some of the very categories used to define "all-time."

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, the achievement was given short shrift.

After the game, here's what Sean Payton said about it:
"A lot of places if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards they would have fireworks, stop the game, and we just kind of had a little nod ‘atta boy,’ but that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league."
Yes, a unique feat.

Reserved for the best of the best.

On top of this, Brees set two more NFL records on Sunday night. First, Brees threw his 30th touchdown pass for a sixth straight season, besting the mark Brett Favre set during Favre's thrice-MVP-garnering prime in the mid '90s.

Then, for another NFL record, Brees surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the year, his eighth consecutive season of doing so. Nobody else has more than six, and none of those are active streaks.

All of this, mind you, happening (or culminating) in just one game: a seasonal devouring of the Panthers' league-leading defense; a career achievement of the highest order (50k yards) that places Brees alongside the game's very best; and two more NFL records added to his already-impressive portfolio.

Those new records saddle up next to these (in part):

* Three of the NFL's six 5,000-yard passing seasons, including the top spot
* The two best seasons in NFL history for completion percentage
* The most passes completed in a season
* The most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (not sure why Unitas isn't included in the link)
* The active leader in postseason career passer rating, and second all-time slightly behind Bart Starr

While Brees has, when it comes to Super Bowl wins and statistical benchmarks, been the NFL's best quarterback since 2006, he's universally slotted behind both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as "best of their generation" quarterbacks.

Though Peyton's and Brady's inclusions are of course well-deserved, it's Brees that should be mentioned alongside them and not a notch below. Mentioning this might be insecure nitpicking, but I don't really give a shit about all that. Right is right.

When Brees is mentioned with Peyton and Brady, and frequently Aaron Rodgers and soon Russell Wilson, Brees always seems to be an "oh yeah" inclusion. An afterthought.

In 2011, Wang called Brees perhaps the "single least-celebrated All-Time Great player in league history." Two years later with a host of additional achievements to boot, nothing much has changed in that regard.

One Super Bowl win for both Favre and Peyton has been enough, in combination with their statistical achievements, for them to be in the "best-ever" debate.

But Brees? Not even close.

It hasn't even been enough to garner him an MVP trophy.

No matter, Brees continues to draft a masterpiece, vast in scope, that is increasingly difficult to ignore. Week after week, there's something more.

For Brees, there will be time later to reflect on and admire his body of work. For now though, there's always another expert to humble.

It's not just that we'll never see something like this again in Saints' history, it's that we might not ever see it again in NFL history: a host of passing records being toppled on the reg by one guy.

He's our guy, and that's pretty god-damned great.

What's supposed to be an infrequency Drew Brees has made the norm.

If there's anything missing (there's not), it's a second Super Bowl title. With that, Brees will have built a resume as flawless as they come.

Eight years ago it would have been the height of lunacy to consider a Saints' quarterback a Hall-of-Famer and, with a few more key accomplishments, the best of his vaunted generation.

But Drew Brees is only 34 years old, and that is what's in play. If you're still doubting Brees at this point in his football career, then you need a history lesson.

This thing ain't over just yet.

For Drew Brees, for the Payton-era Saints, and for Saints' fans chasing the elusive high of that first title, a second Lombardi Trophy elevates this era of Saints' football into a whole new stratosphere for each party involved.

For Brees, the stakes are as high as possible.

Is No. 9 primed to deliver another championship, and with it, cement his legend?

May we all be so lucky.

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