- A common narrative throughout Drew Brees’s career is that he’s often been overlooked—too short, twice injured, playing in the shadow of quarterback greats like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. But the more important reality is that Brees has always been a perfect quarterback for this generation.
Editor’s note: Drew Brees broke the NFL’s all-time passing yards record in the second quarter of the Saints’ Monday night game against the Redskins.
Sometime Monday night in the Superdome against the Redskins, Drew Brees is likely to pass Brett Favre, and then Peyton Manning, to break the NFL record for most passing yards in a career. You may have heard about this. If it doesn’t happen Monday night, it will happen in two weeks against the Ravens in Baltimore (the Saints have a bye in Week 6). But probably Monday night, because Brees needs 201 yards to pass Manning’s record of 71,940, and he has failed to reach 201 yards in a game exactly four times in the last nine years. There is an inevitability to this, just like it is inevitable, where football has become increasingly dependent on the forward pass for safety and business, that Brees’s record will somebody soon be broken as well (although maybe not too soon). But Monday night is about Monday night, not the future.
It would be appropriate if the record were to fall in the same building where people lived for days in desperation during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. A year later Brees first wore a Saints’ uniform and was integral to a football renaissance that helped comfort a battered city and led to a Super Bowl championship at the end of the 2010 season. Brees’s marriage to New Orleans, with a damaged and surgically repaired shoulder that physicians representing the Miami Dolphins determined was too problematic to overlook, is a central part of a theme that will be repeated Monday night: The quarterback as determined survivor, overlooked and underestimated, proving the doubters wrong, all the way to Canton, five years after his retirement.
It’s a valid theme. But as often happens, it’s too simple. And casting the 39-year-old Brees as an unlikely great because he was once considered too short, or because he twice sustained serious injuries—once in high school, just as recruiting was revving up; and once in the NFL, just as he hit free agency—distracts from a more important reality. Brees is in position to break an all-time passing record Monday night not because he was once or twice doubted along the way, but because to doubt him was never prescient. Brees proved people wrong because they were wrong, and he was just himself. And because he is the perfect quarterback for his generation: A surgically accurate thrower with quick feet, a nimble mind and an innovative coach (Sean Payton) who built a spaceship and handed him the keys (or whatever starts a rocket). All of this mixed with a deep reservoir of work ethic, on the field, in the film room and in the gym. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.
I’ve been writing about Brees regularly for just under 20 years, and many times I also fell into the trap of casting Brees as a plucky underdog, beating the odds. Hell, it’s an inescapable narrative and to be sure, in Brees’ case, there’s a lot of validity to that story. But again, it throws shade on the reality of his greatness. I wrote this eight years ago: “It was to become a recurring theme in Brees's life: swimming upstream against the collective wisdom.” It’s the swimming that’s important, not the conventional wisdom.
Brees first hit my sportswriter’s radar in the fall of 1998, when he was in the midst of throwing for 3,983 and 39 touchdowns as a sophomore at Purdue. My editor suggested we consider a profile. I begged off and assured him that Brees was just an undersized, Joe Tiller spread offense system quarterback. Dime a dozen. I was wrong. A year later I went back and spent a week in West Lafayette and Brees’s hometown of Austin and wrote a 3,500-word story for SI’s college football preview issue. (The cover of that same issue featured LaVar Arrington with a Joe Paterno doll on his shoulder; talk among yourselves.)
It was in the reporting of that story that I learned the Brees basics. That he came from a football family; his grandfather, Ray Akins, was a former Marine and a Texas high school coaching legend and his uncle Marty Akins played QB at Texas. That his mother, Mina (divorced from Brees’s dad, Chip, when Brees was eight), was an excellent tennis player, as was Drew. That Brees tore his ACL late in his junior year in high school, during prime recruiting season, and was not recruited seriously by either Texas or Texas A&M, despite throwing for 5,416 yards in two high school seasons. That only Purdue and Kentucky went after him hard. Maybe because of the injury. Maybe because he was—and still is—only six feet and zero inches tall.
But in West Lafayette, the stories flowed. Wide receivers Randall Lane and Vinny Sutherland talked about running routes, seemingly covered, only to see a ball emerge from nowhere and hit them in the hands. Brees’s roommate (and still his good friend), Ben Smith, told me a story that I related in 2010, when Brees was named SI’s Sports Person of the Year:
A week into football practice at Purdue in 1997, first-year coach Joe Tiller had grown impatient. His three returning quarterbacks, upperclassmen Billy Dicken and John Reeves and redshirt freshman Clay Walters, were making a mess of the spread passing offense that Tiller intended to unleash on the unsuspecting, plodding Big Ten. Three true freshmen QBs—Drew Brees from Texas, Jim Mitchell from Missouri and Ben Smith from Nebraska—were watching from behind the huddle when Tiller shouted, “Give me one of those young guys to run with the [first team]!”
Smith says, “I took two steps back and was trying to find somewhere to hide, because I sure didn’t want to hop out there. It was a very stressful moment—I mean it was intense. Then just as I stepped back, Drew stepped up. He moved right in, took control of the huddle, brought the offense up to the line of scrimmage and ran the play. I remember it was a Four-Go route, and he threw to one of the outside go receivers, and he just put the ball right on the money. I was thinking right there: I’m going to have to find another position.”
Brees threw for 11,792 yards and 90 touchdowns in three years at Purdue. It was clear that Texas and Texas A&M, and everybody else, had made a mistake. But that’s not what made Brees great. He was great because he was great.
In the winter and spring of 2001, I spent time with Brees to write what amounted to a draft diary. It struck me that Brees would make an interesting subject, because despite his production—and much like coming out of high school—he would have to prove to people at the next level that he wasn’t just a system QB and wasn’t too short. I made a January trip to Purdue to pitch Brees on the idea and he brought a notebook along and listened as much as he talked. A few days later he called and said he was in. (I got the news in a phone booth on the Massachusetts Turnpike; that’s how long ago it was.
It was a fascinating four months. I watched as Brees threw horribly in the combine and then drove back home to Purdue from Indianapolis, seething. “Now I have to prove myself all over again,” he said to me as his SUV rumbled up I-65. Twenty-four days later at a private workout in West Lafayette, Brees tore it up. The signature throw was a 17-yard out pattern outside the opposite hash mark, 40 yards in the air with the drop and the width of the field factored in. Brees threw a seed. Several of the gathered coaches whistled.
On the morning of the NFL draft, I played nine holes of golf with Brees and his brother, Reid, at the Purdue University course. Brees shot 42 and I shot 45 (this is in my old notebook; I got these scores wrong in a Tweet I posted last week. Mea Culpa). What I remember best is Brees laughing his way through a few holes and then when I stuck a seven-iron relatively close on a par three, he stroked his shot inside me and drained the birdie putt. Point made. That afternoon he and his future wife, Brittany, made fried fish on their apartment patio. Thirty-two players were picked before the Chargers took him. “Man,” he said, “I’m excited.”
Two years later I wrote about Brees when he was in his second year with the Chargers, battling 39-year-old Doug Flutie for the starting job. (To think: Brees is 39 now, with four children). And four years after that, I met Brees and Brittany in New Orleans in the winter of 2006, as the Saints prepared for a divisional playoff game. Barely a year earlier, he had torn up his shoulder so badly that even Dr. James Andrews wondered if Brees would play effectively. “I was just trying to give him a functional shoulder,” Andrews told me back then. The Chargers were no more confident; they drafted Philip Rivers (hard to criticize that) and let Brees walk.
We walked around Audubon Park, reliving the injury and the rehab and the day, in training camp, when Brees threw a wounded quail that fell yards short of wideout Joe Horn. “Use your legs a little more,” said Payton. Brees recalled, “I know he was thinking, ‘This guy’s arm is not going to be ready.’” Brees threw for a league-high 4,418 yards.
Only twice in the next 11 seasons would Brees throw for fewer than that number. Only nine times has an NFL quarterback thrown for more than 5,000 yards in a season; Brees owns four of them, including a career-high of 5,476 yards in 2011, a record that Manning exceeded two years later, in his first season in Denver. He has come of age and grown old as the passing game has overtaken the sport of professional football, a cultural necessity as reducing head trauma has become so central to the game’s future.
Brees has made his own legacy with the same combination of talent and hard work as Manning and Brady. (I’m thinking the ratio might have been slightly different with Favre). A few years I went to Brees for insight on the back-shoulder throw, which he says Flutie taught him. He drew up Four Verticals and explained that any one of the four receivers is available for a back shoulder throw. I asked how he would locate the right one. “If I see the back of a [defender’s] helmet, I’m throwing back shoulder there.” Easy. Just manage four receivers and four—or more—defenders, in two seconds, while the pocket collapses around you.
He is renting this record, even more so than most athletes rent theirs. Of the players ranking in the top ten for career passing yards, five began their careers after 2000 and only three—Dan Marino (No. 5), John Elway (9) and Warren Moon (10) played in the 1980s. The changing ecosystem of the passing game will produce future generations throwing for unimaginable numbers. However, Brees is 100 days short of his 40th birthday and in superb condition. He could player another three or four seasons and add another 15,000 yards to the record. (Brady is 4,000 yards behind Brees, and also not slowing.)
When it’s finished, few will remember the slights that attended Brees’s early years. They won’t remember that he was once too short and twice too injured or that systems hoisted him ever higher. All of the slights will be gone, all of the doubts long erased and the doubters long silenced, a congregation of the justly converted.
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