BALTIMORE — Another week, another milestone for Drew Brees.
The New Orleans Saints quarterback became the fourth player in NFL history to throw for 500 career TD passes when he completed a 1-yard pass to tight end Benjamin Watson for a 7-3 lead in the second quarter Sunday at Baltimore.
Brees, 39, joined Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady.
Two weeks ago, Brees broke Manning’s record for the most passing yards in NFL history. He entered Sunday’s game with 72,103 career passing yards.
Brees is also looking to add one more achievement to his career bucket list Sunday — beating the Ravens. He is 0-4 against them all-time, making them the only team he has never beaten in his 18-year career.
With a win, Brees could join Manning and Favre as the only QBs to beat all 32 teams (Brees beat the Saints early in his career with the Chargers).
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees didn’t just break the NFL passing yardage record Monday night. He did it with his foot slammed down on the gas pedal.
Sure, the New Orleans Saints‘ 39-year-old quarterback relished every moment of his record-breaking night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, eyes welling up with tears as he shared the love with teammates, family members and the home fans.
QB Drew Brees is now the NFL’s all-time passing leader after surpassing Peyton Manning (71,940 yards) during Monday night’s Redskins-Saints game.
And sure, his football immortality is now intact — as if it wasn’t already. Forget “first-ballot” Hall of Famer. They should just hand Brees his gold jacket and bronze bust the day he retires and skip the five-year waiting period.
But Brees wants more than that. He wants a second Super Bowl win. And this season might be his best shot.
Brees is making $25 million per year, but he is surrounded by lower-priced, Pro Bowl-caliber talent throughout the roster, thanks to some outstanding draft selections in recent years. And that won’t last forever.
They probably can’t afford to keep everyone on that list. And on top of all that, the Saints have already traded away their first- and third-round draft picks for next year.
In other words, this is probably as loaded as this roster is ever gonna be around Brees. So this window of the next one to three years probably represents the Saints’ best opportunity to win a Super Bowl.
The NFC is off to a rough start
This could change quickly, but for now, the NFC standings are stacking up in New Orleans’ favor. The Saints are one of only four NFC teams with a winning record (Los Angeles Rams at 5-0, Carolina Panthers at 3-1 and Chicago Bears at 3-1).
On the flip side, back in 2011, the Saints might have had their best team ever — arguably even better than the 2009 Super Bowl championship team. That was the season they set the NFL record with 7,474 yards. But somehow they wound up as the No. 3 seed despite a 13-3 record, and they lost on the road at San Francisco in an epic 36-32 divisional-round playoff game.
This is the obvious one. Brees turns 40 in January, and at some point the skill level or desire is bound to drop off, right?
Brees has talked often about believing he can still thrive at age 45. And I’m not going to be the one to doubt him after he just completed 23 of 26 passes for a career-best 89.7 completion percentage on Monday night, with 363 yards and three touchdowns.
He has the highest passer rating in the NFL this season at 122.3, with 331.6 yards per game, 11 TD passes and zero interceptions.
Sure, Brees doesn’t hit the deep ball with quite as much zip as he did in that 2009 to 2011 prime. But arm strength was never his greatest asset. And he obviously finds ways to manage the game just as effectively. He just set the NFL record for completion percentage for the third time last season at 72.0. And he’s on pace to break it again this year at a whopping 77.9 percent.
But in theory, some of those numbers are bound to start declining at some point. Maybe.
When I asked Brees on Monday night if he feels like he’s playing as well as ever, Brees joked about how his youngest son, Callen, always tells him he’s not throwing the ball in the right place when they try to make diving one-handed catches on the sofa at home.
“So they’re my toughest critics,” Brees said. “They keep me honest.”
Brees has also said that having his four children growing older and getting to appreciate the experience of being around him for all these special moments is one of the things that keeps driving him. So maybe he will play until he’s 45.
But as long as he’s got that foot on the gas pedal the way he does now, he might as well try to drive straight on through to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta just to be safe.
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time passing leader on Monday night, and he did it in spectacular fashion.
Brees broke Peyton Manning’s record of 71,940 career passing yards with a 62-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith in the second quarter of a 43-19 rout over the Washington Redskins.
Better yet, the New Orleans Saints’ 39-year-old quarterback had one of the best performances of his 18-year career, completing 23 of 26 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns. His completion percentage of 89.7 was a career best. And he did it in front of both the home crowd in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and a Monday Night Football audience.
“It played out even greater than I ever could’ve imagined,” said Brees, who added he had tried to rehearse the moment in his mind during the week — but still got caught up in the emotion when the NFL stopped the game as planned to recognize his achievement. Brees hugged teammates on the field, then pointed and blew kisses to the fans. He handed the ball to Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker on the sideline and shared hugs and kisses with his wife, Brittany, his four children and coach Sean Payton, among others.
“There’s so many people that are responsible and had a hand in that,” Brees told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game when asked what the record means to him. “The two people that are most responsible for my football career, early on, my mom and my grandpa, are up in heaven.
“There were a lot of people I wanted to prove right tonight, but none more so than them. I know they are watching down on me.”
Brees, who was mic’d up for the game, was captured on the sideline telling his kids right after the play, “You can accomplish anything in life you’re willing to work for, right?”
His three sons also joined him in the postgame locker room and media conference.
Brees said he had 178 text messages and counting at that point.
“It’s hard for me to reflect too much right now because my career’s not done,” Brees said. “There are still goals to be accomplished, there are still challenges to be met. So I’m still very focused on that. And yet when something like this happens, and there’s so many people that are responsible for that, that can be a part of that, that makes me happy.
“It makes me proud, and it makes me extremely grateful for the opportunity to play this game and to have played it as long as I’ve been able to play it, to have wound up in New Orleans, which you all know that story. So it’s just been an unbelievable journey and I’m just so grateful.”
Manning also congratulated Brees with a video message that was both hilarious and heartfelt. He joked that he held the record for 1,000 days and they were the best 1,000 days of his life — and “you’ve ruined that for me.” Manning also held up a picture he and Brees took together in 2000 and said they’ve come a long way.
“In true Peyton fashion,” Brees said. “He always is very creative.”
The play itself was the only part of the moment that went off script.
Smith wasn’t actually the intended receiver on the play. But Payton credited Brees for making the “alert throw” after seeing how the defense reacted.
Smith said the Saints ran a similar play earlier in the game — but the pass went to Cameron Meredith instead. Brees said it was a new play the Saints had come up with to flood a zone and “maybe someone pops open.”
It was Smith’s first career TD catch. But he said he is perfectly happy that he’ll have to go to Canton, Ohio, to see the ball.
Brees, on the other hand, now has 499 TD passes — fourth in NFL history and one behind Tom Brady.
Brees is the unlikeliest of all-time great quarterbacks — just 6 feet tall, barely recruited out of high school, he fell to the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the NFL draft out of Purdue in 2001 and was doubted by most of the league when he became a free agent after a career-threatening shoulder injury in 2005.
But that’s when he came to New Orleans and his career took off. Brees and Payton have formed one of the most prolific offensive duos in NFL history over the past 13 years — including a Super Bowl victory after the 2009 season.
Brees also holds the NFL records for most career completions and highest completion percentage. He set the single-season passing yardage record in 2011 with 5,476 (before Manning passed him by one yard in 2013). And he has thrown for more than 5,000 yards five times over the past decade — something no other quarterback has ever done more than once.
“He deserves it,” Payton said. “An unbelievable run and it doesn’t feel like it’s been 12 or 13 years. It feels like it’s been much shorter than that.
“I think the thing that’s inspiring most is knowing what’s most important to him and that common goal that we have relative to winning another championship. … All the actual hardware, the different bats [to signify big games or moments], those all get dust. But it’s about these memories right now. Someone like that, as special as that is tonight and what he’s accomplished, that’s what you miss when you’re done.”
Congratulation to one of the all time great QB’s of our time. He’s a better person then he is a QB if you can imagine that. Young men , take notice. Be like a Drew Brees. Congrats 9 ,… https://t.co/mmRNBggLGG
Marques Colston has caught more passes from Drew Brees than anyone. But as he reflected on those 706 catches for 9,709 yards and 72 touchdowns, the former New Orleans Saints receiver laughed at how many of them he never actually saw leaving Brees’ hand.
QB Drew Brees is 201 yards away from becoming the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader during Monday’s Redskins-Saints game (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Read more:
“Most of the intermediate routes, I would just see the ball come out of a pile of folks,” Colston said of Brees, who needs 201 yards on Monday night against the Washington Redskins to surpass Peyton Manning and become the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. “And that’s just time on task, man. There’s no other way to really explain it. I mean, that’s probably hundreds if not thousands of reps, me seeing the defense the way he’s seeing the defense, being able to read body language.
“It was just a special, special connection.”
Brees is the unlikeliest of greats — a quarterback who stands just 6 feet tall, was barely recruited out of high school and fell to the second round of the NFL draft, where he began his career with the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and then joined the Saints in 2006.
But the way his receivers describe it, Brees has earned his way to 71,740 career passing yards through a combination of skill and desire, accuracy and character, uncanny vision and relentless work ethic.
ESPN spoke with 15 of Brees’ pass-catchers for a collection of their fondest memories, including the years and his stats with the QB:
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, 2001-05
254 catches, 1,750 yards, 6 TDs
“I just think of his competitiveness and his ability to, I guess, always bounce back and never take no for an answer. Even those early years when it was tough on him and he was going through the Doug Flutie situation for a while [being benched three times], then it became the Philip Rivers situation, he always remained the same. He was consistent with the way he thought of himself — like, ‘I’m a top quarterback in this league, I’m a starting quarterback, I’m a Pro Bowl guy, I’m an All-Pro guy.’ He always thought of himself like that. So that’s what comes to my mind when I think of Drew Brees.”
WR Keenan McCardell, 2004-05
97 catches, 1,255 yards, 9 TDs
“I got there right after Week 8 of the regular season, got traded there, and the first thing he wanted me to do was to get on the same page with him. We stayed after — not just me, but everybody, and we made sure we got on the same page. He was unbelievably prepared all the time. We would stay after on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He bought dinner for us.
“I remember the first Wednesday that I got there, after practice he said, ‘Keenan, let’s play some catch afterwards.’ He said, ‘Just stay in front of me.’ It was something like Michael Jordan where he closes his eyes and shoots the free throw. He closed his eyes and I was standing in front of him [10 yards away] and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Just stay there.’ He said, ‘I just want to try to feel where you are.’ He said, ‘You can step to the side and I’m just trying to feel.’ … I started laughing afterwards. I said, ‘Drew, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen somebody close their eyes and throw me the ball and hit me in between the 8 and 7.’ He started laughing. After that, I realized you had somebody special.”
180 catches, 2,279 yards, 23 TDs
“This particular moment was special for me, and special for the whole team (a 72-yard touchdown in the second quarter of a Week 15 win at Cleveland in 2004). He threw me like a bullet route, and it was the first time as a group that we won the AFC West. That was like a 10-year span where the Chargers hadn’t been to the playoffs. It was super cold, and I remember him throwing that wheel route and how happy we were. He threw it, I caught it and I was gone.
“He just epitomized the quarterback position and what it means to be an All-Pro, just the way he always handled the ups and downs of his career.”
WR Lance Moore, 2006-13
346 catches, 4,281 yards, 38 TDs
“The fact that he’s a 10-, 12-, 15-year veteran, and after Saturday walk-through he goes into the indoor [practice facility] by himself and walks through the entire game plan leading up to the game — most of the time in the dark, nobody in there with him, no playbook, it’s all off of his head; that was the first time I ever saw anybody do that. And I can almost guarantee you he still does it to this day. So, there’s a reason why he’s great.
“I remember the first day that I was back from Birmingham [in 2006] after I got hurt in NFL Europe … the very first day that I’m in this building, Drew walks up to me, introduces himself to me. And at first, I’m nervous because, like, ‘This is Drew Brees,’ you know. But then I’m like, ‘Wow, this dude is awesome. I’m a young guy, never played in any games in the NFL, and he’s going out of his way to introduce himself to me.’ But I always tell people nowadays, as a great a player as he is, he’s an even greater person, and takes the time and does the work.”
WR Marques Colston, 2006-15
706 catches, 9,709 yards, 72 TDs
“I think he’s just somebody that understood everyone around him. And there’s a memory I have of that first touchdown that we scored together. And what stood out to me was that he was more excited for me than I was for myself. Just watching the video, he ran and jumped on me. And for him to be that excited for a rookie in his first game, that just speaks volumes to who he is as a person and as a man.
“I think everyone in the building understood that he’s hands down the best player in the organization, but you would never know it by the way he interacts with everyone around him and the way that he works and he grinds like he’s a free agent trying to make the roster.”
RB Reggie Bush, 2006-10
294 catches, 2,142 yards, 12 TDs
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing he did I didn’t like. It was when we played the Eagles in the playoff game [after the 2006 season], and he laid me out there to dry, and I got my head knocked off. And now every time an Eagles player tweets me, that’s the first thing they bring up. ‘Hey you remember this hit?’ Of course, I remember the hit. But it’s funny, because Drew’s such a great player and such a great professional, on and off the field, and I remember that moment coming back into the huddle, he was like, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry, bro. I’m really sorry.’ And I felt bad for him because I knew it really affected him. But that’s the kind of player he is. He’s a competitor. He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around.”
RB Pierre Thomas, 2007-14
327 catches, 2,608 yards, 12 TDs
“I remember there was one throw, he was running off to the side, and he just shovel passed it to me, and I ran up the field and got the first down for him. I didn’t think he was going to throw it to me, but he did. There was a few times he got me like that.
“It’s his work ethic [that stands out]. The details he put in his game, day in, day out, during practice, after practice. He’s trying to figure out what’s more comfortable for the players. You know, everybody is different, everybody’s unique, everybody has their own way of performing — and he wants to make sure he works with that. The steps, how guys get out of cuts, how long does it take for certain guys, because everybody’s not the same.”
WR Robert Meachem, 2007-11, 2013-14
162 catches, 2,695 yards, 25 TDs
“I want to say a high school gave him access to a gym. We had morning workouts, and then about 12 or 1 o’clock, we would try to go to the school and play pickup basketball. And it was so funny, because we had a play where I actually got the ball, so I was the quarterback, I was the point guard. He had to go play another position. And he didn’t like that. You know, he’s used to being in control, so he didn’t like that too much. He had to switch. …
“He’s a perfectionist, so pretty much everything we had to do, we were gonna do it over again after practice. Because if he didn’t like where he placed the ball during practice, we were gonna have to redo it. So a lot of my touchdowns were long bombs, so his biggest things would be if he was short on one or if he overthrew me. Oh lord, he would have to redo that one because he’d be mad about it. But he was a perfectionist, and when we got in the game, it worked time after time.”
202 catches, 1,379 yards, 4 TDs
“He’s just good people, man. You’d think because he’s an elite all-time passing leader that he might feel entitled or held to a certain standard. But he’s just one of the guys. He kicks it, hangs out, competes in the locker room, just has fun. That’s what I love most about him.
“[His competitiveness comes out in every locker room game]. Oh, pingpong for sure. That one year when we had the [pingpong ranking] list going, I remember one time I must have beat him, and he wanted to keep playing until he could beat me. He kept coming back each day. And then one day, he got his swing going on the pingpong table and he was able to get me a couple days later. Even on the [mini-basketball] hoop, he wanted to play somebody left-handed. That’s just him, man.”
95 catches, 1,572 yards, 8 TDs
“The biggest thing I remember is how OCD he was about everything. He’s a repetition guy. They’ve got to be perfect reps. We would run these routes until he felt like they were good to go for the game. … I can remember him being super OCD about touching the line when we’re doing certain drills, keeping his routine very similar every day; and when he got out of that routine, it would throw him off.
“At first, you think it’s funny, but then you realize and see how much success he’s had. You see how those things play a part in that and it becomes something you admire. That’s something I’ve learned from him — getting in that routine, sticking to it. And now I understand if you get off of that how that feels and how it affects my play. It’s certainly something that rubbed off on me.”
121 catches, 1,277 yards, 10 TDs
“I’d say he’s uncomfortably normal. He’s a superstar, but you might see him and his wife and the kids shopping in Target. I remember I saw him in Target one time and I was like, ‘Dude, you’re Drew Brees. Why are you in Target? You don’t have anybody to go to Target for you? You can’t just walk around in Target. Do you have security with you?’ No, he’s just a normal guy walking around. He’s coaching his kids in football. He’s coming to my kids’ birthday party. He’s accessible. He’s a very normal, approachable guy who is one of the best, if not the best, to play the position.”
208 catches, 2,782 yards, 20 TDs
“First thing I think of right away, so we both lived in Del Mar [California, in the offseason]. A long story, but I lived a couple doors down from him — thanks to him, we’ll just say that. And I remember on a bye week us going home. And you know, bye week, you think of like relax and recover, whatnot. But just being on that same page, we went to our back alley and we were playing long toss. We were probably out there for about an hour. And I think what makes him great is how accurate he is. And just thinking about that moment on how specific he was, even in the streets, on where he wanted to put the ball made me realize that this guy takes every little detail into account and that makes him special. And he’s an even better person.”
2 catches, 4 yards
“Oh man, his work ethic. He’s extremely smart, great leader. Being around him, hands down he’s the best quarterback in the league to me. Aaron Rodgers is not far off, but I have to give it to Drew Brees because of the amount of time he’s been in the league and he’s still doing it at a high level. And being around him personally, I’ve seen how he works off the field, as well.”
116 catches, 1,162 yards, 6 TDs
“When I first got here, I had watched Drew a lot and I knew he was great. But when I got to practice, I just remembered when I finally caught a ball from him, he like literally throws the ball to your hands like you don’t have no choice but to catch it. He’s that good, he’s that accurate. That’s one thing that stuck with me and still sticks with me from the first time I had that interaction with him. It’s still the same. Some of the throws he makes are crazy. Sometimes you might not think you’re getting the ball, and he just throws it to your hands and, ooh, you got it.”
238 catches, 2,827 yards, 17 TDs
“He’s always on. Drew is always on. And when a guy’s on, it’s contagious — whether it’s the look in his eyes that you know he’s on, whether it’s the way he communicates with you or whether it’s just how he’s playing, like he’s on fire. He loves football. He’s an example of how you’re supposed to play the position. He’s always studying the game. So for a guy like me, it’s contagious for me to have somebody like that. I always say it: Those guys keep you honest. If you want to be this, if you want to do this, if you want to go into games and be this consistent … you look up to those guys.
“And another thing, he’s a great dad. He’s a great person, and he’s a great dad. So for a guy who has [four] kids and loves his kids to be able to come here and still give it all to this organization, you kind of want to give back to a guy like that. You want to bring back as many wins as possible.”
— ESPN reporters Michael DiRocco, Eric D. Williams, Lindsey Thiry, Cameron Wolfe and John Keim contributed to this report.
METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees was ready for the blitz on Thursday. And the New Orleans Saints quarterback came armed with a joke the first time he was asked about the record.
“What are you talking about?” Brees deadpanned before letting out a big laugh.
Brees has insisted repeatedly that this isn’t the time for reflecting, and he wants to make his routine as normal as possible this week.
But even he admitted it’s “crazy” and he “never would have dreamed” of being here, 201 yards away from becoming the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader, poised to pass both Peyton Manning and Brett Favre on Monday Night Football at home against the Washington Redskins.
“It speaks to the longevity. And it says a lot about the teams I’ve been on, the coaches, the teammates, the players. Everyone has a hand in this, and I hope they know that,” said Brees, who told one of his classic stories about how he remembers playing in Miami during the preseason as a rookie in 2001 and looking up at all of Dan Marino’s numbers on the ring of honor and marveling at them.
“At the time I was just hoping to solidify the backup position, and eventually maybe one day become a starter,” Brees said. “So to be sitting here 18 years later in striking distance … it’s just kind of mind-boggling.”
Brees also said it would be special to break the record at home — if it indeed happens — because the New Orleans fans have been such “a big part of this” since he arrived in 2006. It’s also special that his kids will be old enough to appreciate the moment — though if they’re aware it’s happening, they haven’t mentioned it.
“I have a feeling mom’s probably talked to ’em and said, ‘Don’t say anything,'” Brees said.
The good thing for both Brees and the Saints is that they have plenty of experience with moments like these. Brees broke Marino’s single-season passing yardage record at home on Monday Night Football in 2011. And he broke Johnny Unitas’ record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at home on a Sunday night in 2012.
To Sean Payton’s credit, he didn’t try to deny the significance, saying it was a “fair question” when asked how much the team will address it this week.
“Obviously, it’s a storyline,” Payton said, “but you always say that it’s just more special when you win. I’m sure Drew would feel the same way.”
And the Saints did indeed win on both of those record-breaking nights in the past.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of Drew Brees records — or have witnessed them in the Dome in some form or fashion. So just to see another one go down, it’ll just be another day,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said. “It’s just another day in the life of being a teammate of Drew Brees.
“[But] it’s special, just to know that no one in the game has done what you’ve done. And it just says a lot [about] him, about his work ethic. He works every day to be the best, and he deserves it. So we’re all behind him and we all want to see him get every single passing record there is known to man, because he deserves it.”
After being drafted with the first pick in Round 2, Brees, 22, plays in just one game as a rookie with the Chargers. He comes off the bench to replace an injured Doug Flutie. The first time he drops back to pass, he fumbles (and recovers). But he rallies and leads the Chargers back from a 19-0 deficit. His first completion is a 7-yard pass to RB Terrell Fletcher. And his first touchdown pass is a 20-yarder to WR Freddie Jones that gives San Diego a 20-19 lead before a 25-20 loss.
9/29/02: Week 4 vs. Patriots
Brees earns a starting job in his second season — and he wins his first four games, including a 21-14 victory over the reigning Super Bowl champs and a fellow young quarterback named Tom Brady. He ends the season with 3,284 yards, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Head-to-Head: Brees vs. Brady
In five meetings between the future Hall of Fame QBs, Brees holds the advantage over New England’s Tom Brady in multiple categories. Brady does have the lead in Super Bowl titles, 5-1.
9/28/03: Week 4 at Raiders
The Chargers quarterback completes a 17-yard pass to tight end Antonio Gates in the third quarter of a Week 4 loss at Oakland, the start of a prolific pairing. Brees and Gates hooked up for 180 catches, 2,279 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2003 to ’05.
11/2/03: Week 8 at Bears
Brees is stuck on this number, 4,955, for six weeks after he gets benched during a Week 9 loss at Chicago and temporarily loses his job to Flutie. The Chargers started 1-7, and Brees wrote in his autobiography that he was “more disheartened than I have ever been” during that stretch.
10/3/04: Week 4 vs. Titans
This game has long been a career turning point for Brees. After a 1-2 start and some early struggles in Week 4, coach Marty Schottenheimer tells Brees he is one drive away from being replaced by first-round draft pick Philip Rivers. Brees responds by leading the Chargers to a 38-17 rout and a 12-4 record. He makes his first Pro Bowl and is named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Career Stats With Current Teams
The makings of a rivalry were all there when the Chargers made a draft-day trade in 2004 to bring in the quarterback out of NC State, though it never turned into that, as Rivers would spend two years behind Brees. Here are their numbers with the Saints and Chargers, respectively.
12/31/05: Week 17 vs. Broncos
Brees’ tenure in San Diego ends in devastating fashion when he suffers a 360-degree labrum tear and rotator-cuff damage in his throwing shoulder while trying to recover a fumble. The Chargers finish 9-7, and they’re willing to let Brees go since they have Rivers. Only the Saints (with first-year coach Sean Payton) and Dolphins court Brees in free agency. But the Dolphins bow out over medical concerns while the Saints offer a six-year, $60 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.
Dr. James Andrews, who performs the surgery on Brees:
“All expectations were that he had a career-ending shoulder injury. But he had such a good work ethic … He was an unbelievable comeback. And he’s still playing.”
9/10/06: Week 1 at Browns
Brees’ first completion with the Saints is an 11-yard pass to rookie RB Reggie Bush on third-and-10. His first touchdown pass is a 12-yarder to rookie WR Marques Colston in the third quarter. And the Saints kick off with a stunning 3-0 start. A funny side note: Brees still has a ball commemorating that first TD pass — and Colston’s first name is spelled wrong. Colston was an unheralded seventh-round pick, but he went on to catch 706 passes for 9,709 yards and 72 TDs from Brees.
Two Teams, Two Sets of Stats
Brees’ career with New Orleans stands out in a big way from his short time in San Diego. Here are his stats with each team, including 13 seasons and a Super Bowl title with the Saints (at left) and five seasons with the Chargers.
End of 2006 season
Brees ends his first season in New Orleans with a career-high 4,418 passing yards (a number he has since topped nine times). And the Saints stunningly reach the NFC Championship Game just one year removed from a 3-13 season before losing at Chicago. Brees is a co-recipient of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award to recognize all that he did both on and off the field to help revive New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Brees on overcoming his height:
“A lot of it is feel as opposed to actual vision. People may not believe it, and maybe it’s different for taller guys — I don’t know — but there’s times where I don’t see it. I can’t see it visually with my eyes. But I can feel it.”
10/26/08: Week 8 vs. Chargers
Traveling across the globe, Brees gets his first chance at revenge against his former team at London’s Wembley Stadium. He throws for 339 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 37-32 win. Brees has never lost to the Chargers in three meetings since he left the team.
12/28/08: Week 17 vs. Panthers
Brees becomes just the second player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season — falling 15 yards short of Dan Marino’s former record of 5,084 yards. Brees goes on to surpass 5,000 yards four more times in his career (5,476 in 2011, 5,177 in 2012, 5,162 in 2013 and 5,208 in 2016). No other quarterback has ever done it twice.
Most 5,000-yard seasons
The Saints quarterback has five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, last surpassing the mark following the 2016 season.
9/13/09: Week 1 vs. Lions
A sign of great things to come: Brees starts the season with the first six-TD performance of his career, throwing for 358 yards in a 45-27 rout of Detroit. And the Saints keep rolling after that, starting 13-0 before ultimately winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
10/25/09: Week 7 at Dolphins
The 6-foot-tall Brees leaps over the goal line for a first-half touchdown and shows off his hops again by dunking over the goal post following a second-half touchdown run.
Brees when asked if he was surprised he had that dunk in him:
“There are times in a game when a team needs an emotional lift … and I felt like I had to do something to get everybody hyped up. Obviously, you don’t see that a lot from a 6-foot guy.”
11/30/09: Week 12 vs. Patriots
This proves to be the signature performance of Brees’ career — in the regular season, anyway. On MNF against Brady, Brees scores a perfect passer rating of 158.3, completing 18 of 23 passes for 371 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 38-17 win. It remains the only perfect passer rating of Brees’ career, and some analysts have called it the best single-game statistical performance in NFL history considering the stakes and results.
Brady on Brees:
“He’s got everything it takes. I think that’s why he’s thrown for 5,000 yards five times.”
2009: End of regular season
Brees sets the NFL record for single-season completion percentage (70.62) — a record he later topped in 2011 and again in 2017. Then he is nearly perfect in the playoffs, with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions as he becomes the Super Bowl MVP. His signature drive comes in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ 31-17 win against the Colts, as he completes all eight pass attempts to eight different wide receivers, including a touchdown to Jeremy Shockey and a two-point conversion to Lance Moore.
10/17/10: Week 6 at Buccaneers
Brees completes his first pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham — another former basketball player like Gates. The duo went on to combine for 383 catches, 4,725 yards and 51 touchdowns from 2010 to ’14.
1,000-yard seasons with Brees
Here are all the wide receivers, from both the Saints and Chargers, who have had 1,000-yard seasons on passes from Brees.
10/23/11: Week 7 vs. Colts
The Saints’ offense sets an NFL record with 7,474 yards in 2011 that stands to this day. They were never more dominant than this Sunday prime-time game, beating Indianapolis 62-7. Brees has five TDs and completes 31 of 35 passes for a completion percentage of 88.6 — the highest of his career.
Time needed to break passing record
Here are all of the QBs on the Saints’ 2018 schedule. Their projections are based on each of their career passing yards per game as a starter and assuming no missed games.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, 35
Tyrod Taylor, 29
Matt Ryan, 33
Eli Manning, 37
Alex Smith, 34
Joe Flacco, 33
Kirk Cousins, 30
Jared Goff, 23
Andy Dalton, 30
Carson Wentz, 25
Dak Prescott, 25
Jameis Winston, 24
Cam Newton, 29
Ben Roethlisberger, 36
12/26/11: Week 16 vs. Falcons
Not only does Brees break Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage record — he shatters it. Brees passed Marino in Week 16 before finishing the season with 5,476 yards, 46 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. “There may be only one name that goes in the record book, but it’s all about you guys,” Brees says during a postgame speech in the locker room, crediting everyone from teammates to coaches, owners, equipment managers and trainers.
Record Seasons: Brees and Marino
The Dolphins’ Marino carries the single-season passing yardage record for 27 long seasons — until Brees passes him in 2011. Here’s a look at each of their record-breaking seasons.
10/7/12: Week 5 vs. Chargers
This becomes a lost season for the Saints in the wake of Bountygate, but Brees sets one of his most impressive records along the way, breaking Johnny Unitas’ 42-year-old mark of 48 straight games with a touchdown pass. Brees breaks it with a 40-yard TD pass to longtime Saints WR Devery Henderson — against his former team, the Chargers, no less.
11/30/14: Week 13 at Steelers
Brees throws for 257 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions against Pittsburgh. He has thrown for at least five TD passes 10 times in his career (most in NFL history) — and he ranks fourth in NFL history with 496 TD passes for his career. He’s 43 behind Manning for first place all time.
Brees’ Passing Touchdowns by game
In nearly half of the games Brees has played in during his 18-year career, he has thrown for a touchdown or two. Here is a breakdown of Brees’ TD games.
9/27/15: Week 3 at Panthers
For the first time since high school, Brees misses a game because of injury after suffering a bruised rotator cuff. Brees returns the next week and still leads the NFL with 4,870 yards for the 2015 season.
11/1/15: Week 8 vs. Giants
Brees provides one of the most memorable moments of his career, becoming the eighth player in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in a game to outduel Eli Manning and his six TD passes in a 52-49 thriller. Brees completes 39 of 50 passes for 505 yards — the second-highest total of his career.
Brees’ single-game passing ranks
The total number of games Brees threw for each yardage category, and where he ranks among quarterbacks all time in that category.
9/11/16: Week 1 vs. Raiders
Brees opens the season with the longest pass of his career, a 98-yard touchdown to dynamic speedster Brandin Cooks. The duo also connects on an 87-yard TD later this season — the second-longest pass of Brees’ career.
Brees’ career completion percentages
End of 2017 regular season
The Saints return to the playoffs after a three-year drought, thanks to one of the best rookie classes in NFL history. Brees finishes with the fewest attempts (536), yards (4,334), touchdowns (23) and interceptions (8) of his 12-year tenure in New Orleans — while setting the NFL record for completion percentage for the third time (72.0 percent). Brees also ranks first in NFL history for career completion percentage at 67.1 percent.
9/23/18: Week 3 at Falcons
Brees proves he has some “Superman” left in him when needed, leading the Saints to a thrilling 43-37 overtime victory with three TD passes and two TD runs — including an improbable spin move out of a sure tackle late in the fourth quarter. Brees has had 42 comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime in his 18-year pro career.
Brees vs. Manning: Yards By Age
For the past three seasons, this record has been held by two-time Super Bowl champ Peyton Manning, who retired in March 2016 after 18 NFL seasons. As the 39-year-old Brees continues on in his 18th season himself, here are the career passing yards by age for each quarterback.
Evolution of passing yards record
A look at the NFL’s career passing yards leaders, their total yards and the years they each held the record.
Drew Brees is an institution. He’s in the middle of his 13th season as the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints after spending the first five years of his career with the San Diego Chargers. He is quite literally without peers in that there is nobody else in the league left from the 2001 NFL draft. The last player who was still around from the second round of that draft besides Brees, who was taken with the 32nd selection, was Dominic Raiola, and the longtime Lions center retired after 2014. Brees’ only predecessors left on active rosters are Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson, Tom Brady and Sebastian Janikowski.
As Brees prepares to likely set the record for most passing yards in a career on Monday Night Football against Washington, the time he spent before arriving in New Orleans feels like ancient history. The Purdue product struggled early in his career with the Chargers, and after losing his job to Doug Flutie for a stretch of the 2003 season, San Diego used the first pick in the 2004 draft on Eli Manning before trading him to the Giants for Philip Rivers.
Brees then broke out with a Pro Bowl season in 2004 and kept up things with a solid campaign in 2005, only to suffer a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder during Week 17. The Chargers chose to let Brees leave in free agency and turn the job over to Rivers. Brees seemed close to a deal with the Miami Dolphins, only for Miami’s doctors to suggest that Brees had only a 25 percent chance of continuing his career. The Dolphins instead chose to trade for Daunte Culpepper, the Saints signed Brees, and the rest is history.
Except for today, that is. We know how Brees’ career turned out, but let’s explore three scenarios in which we slightly change something about the future Hall of Famer’s NFL tenure and see how football might have shifted dramatically on its axis in the process. I’ve used reports from the time to estimate what organizations might have done if things had broken differently with Brees. Each of the scenarios exist in their own universe, and they all present a radically different NFL from the one we’ve seen over the past 15 years.
The 6-foot Brees threw only 27 passes as a rookie in 2001 before delivering a slightly below-average full season as a starter in 2002. The real star of that offense was running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who racked up 2,172 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns. It seemed likely that Brees would take a step forward in 2003 after the Chargers added star wideout David Boston in free agency, but while Tomlinson continued to play at a high level, Brees’ interception rate spiked to 4.2 percent. He posted a passer rating of just 67.5.
While the Chargers expected Rivers to take over at some point during the 2004 campaign, Brees turned his career around. With the help of second-year tight end Antonio Gates, Brees’ interception rate fell, his completion percentage and yards per attempt rose dramatically, and he finished with a passer rating of 104.8, making the Pro Bowl in the process. Brees has posted an above-average passer rating in each of the ensuing 14 seasons.
What we’re going to suppose here, then, is that Brees doesn’t have that down 2003 season and instead posts that 104.8 passer rating in 2003. The Chargers naturally don’t finish 4-12 in that scenario, but given that they also had the league’s 31st-ranked scoring defense, let’s say they finish somewhere around 8-8. What happens next might scare fans of a few teams …
1. The Chargers don’t have the first overall pick and never draft Manning
Naturally, with an improved record, the Chargers don’t draft first; they move down to the middle of the first round. Let’s say they pick 16th and use their selection on Ohio State defensive end Will Smith, who would rack up 67.5 sacks over a nine-year career in New Orleans.
2. With the first pick, the Raiders draft Manning and trade him to the Giants
The Manning family famously insisted that the Ole Miss product would refuse to play for the Chargers if San Diego drafted him and noted Eli “preferred” to play for the Giants. Eli has never given a full explanation of why he refused to play in San Diego, with most explanations suggesting his father, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, was involved in the decision. Archie, the story goes, was concerned that his youngest son would be stuck playing for a dysfunctional organization like the one he struggled with in New Orleans all those years prior.
The Raiders were only two years removed from a Super Bowl at that point, but they already had veteran Rich Gannon on the roster and were making a coaching change in replacing Bill Callahan with Norv Turner. They passed on the other promising young quarterbacks in the 2004 class, so it doesn’t seem likely that Al Davis was looking for a passer. In reality, the Raiders used the second overall pick on left tackle Robert Gallery.
So, let’s keep things as similar to the real world as possible. The Raiders draft Manning with the first overall pick and trade him to the Giants for the draft rights to Gallery (whom the Giants take third), the 64th selection, and first- and fifth-round picks in 2005. The most notable player from that ’05 group is edge rusher Shawne Merriman, who racked up 39.5 sacks over his first three seasons before falling to injuries and suspensions. In this scenario, the Giants get Eli and the Raiders get Gallery, Merriman, and third- and fifth-round picks. The Chargers use their pick on Smith, who replaces Merriman in their lineup from 2004 on.
3. The Steelers trade up from No. 11 to No. 5 to draft Rivers
Mind blown? Reports at the time suggested that the Steelers held a significant interest in Rivers, who had just finished a glowing career at NC State. Pittsburgh didn’t invite the eventual fourth overall pick to its pre-draft camp, even though another league GM swore they wanted Rivers, because Kevin Colbert knew Rivers wasn’t going to make it to the Steelers at 11.
Here, with a slightly different scenario, they get their man. Manning and Gallery come off the board at picks 1 and 3, and the Cardinals, who passed on Rivers in real life, take Larry Fitzgerald at No. 2. Washington, which had a first-round pick quarterback on the roster in Patrick Ramsey, still goes for Sean Taylor. That leaves the Browns at No. 5, and while they might have taken Rivers, the fact that they passed on Ben Roethlisberger in the real draft suggests that they weren’t desperately interested in adding a quarterback.
Pittsburgh doesn’t trade up often, but having traded up the year before for Troy Polamalu, we know Colbert would have made a move for a player he saw as a difference-maker. In this universe, the Steelers send the Browns the 10th overall pick and their 2005 first-round pick, which ended up netting tight end Heath Miller. The Browns used their 2004 first-rounder on Kellen Winslow Jr., so it’s more likely that they would have drafted a player at a different position. You can probably guess how I suspect it would have turned out for Cleveland.
The Steelers get Rivers, and given that he played at a high level from the moment he took over in San Diego, it’s safe to assume that they would have been just fine at quarterback for the ensuing 14 seasons. As for the quarterback who ended up filling that role …
4. The Bills draft Roethlisberger at 12
Buffalo wanted to bring in a quarterback to serve as a long-term replacement for Drew Bledsoe, who struggled in 2003. The organization restructured Bledsoe’s deal to take away most of a $7 million bonus that April and then moved on from the former Patriots star after the 2004 season. In the real world, they drafted Lee Evans at 13 and then traded into the bottom of the first round to add Tulane product J.P. Losman, who finished his NFL career with more interceptions (34) than touchdowns (33).
Evans turned into an effective wideout despite subpar quarterback play, but Bills fans would have preferred to end up with Roethlisberger, who will eventually make his way to Canton. Drafting the Miami of Ohio product titanically shifts the Bills’ past 14 years. For one, they probably don’t lose to the Steelers’ backups in Week 17 of the 2004 season and make the playoffs in the process.
The Bills don’t trade away their 2005 first-round pick, which the Cowboys used to draft defensive end Marcus Spears. They don’t move up to draft EJ Manuel in the first round of 2013 and use their pick on someone like Eric Reid or Justin Pugh. It’s not impossible to imagine them drafting Josh Allen in 2018 as Roethlisberger’s replacement, but the past 14 years likely include multiple trips to the postseason.
5. The Chargers beat the Patriots in the 2007 playoffs and end their undefeated season before the Super Bowl
Fast-forward to the 2007 season, with Brees already established as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Rivers didn’t skip a beat in taking over for Brees in real life, but the Chargers’ deepest playoff run came to an end in 2007 with Rivers (partly) to blame. The brutally tough Rivers tore his ACL during the divisional-round upset win over the Colts, and while nobody on earth expected him to play in the AFC title game, Rivers underwent arthroscopic surgery on Monday and then played on Sunday against New England.
Rivers struggled, throwing two interceptions and posting a passer rating of just 47.1. What’s forgotten, though, is that Tom Bradyalso struggled. After throwing eight interceptions during that legendary 2007 season, Brady threw three against San Diego. Randy Moss failed to make an impact, and while Brady made what the AP recap characterized as “several stunningly poor throws,” the Patriots pulled out a 21-12 victory.
It’s true that the Chargers were banged up even beyond Rivers’ injury. Tomlinson got only two carries because of a knee injury. Gates played through a dislocated toe. At the same time, Brady’s interceptions gifted the Chargers a series of short fields. Two drives began on the Patriots’ side of the field, and while the Chargers got into the red zone three times, they could kick only three field goals.
It’s hardly out of the question to imagine a scenario in which a healthy Brees makes enough of a difference to win the game. Beating the Patriots in Foxborough in January can be awfully tough, but in a world in which Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez can pull off the upset, I wouldn’t put it past Brees to do the same thing.
6. The Chargers beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII
Tomlinson had a sprained MCL and likely would have been able to recover to play some role. Gates would have been able to play through the pain of the toe injury. They would have presented a brutally difficult matchup for New York. While the Giants were relatively effective against wideouts that season, Michael Strahan & Co. ranked 26th in DVOA against throws to running backs and 30th against tight ends. The Patriots had Kevin Faulk and threw seven passes to him for 52 yards, but their top tight end was blocker Kyle Brady.
The Giants’ pass rush bothered Brady, but Brees famously has one of the fastest releases in football and now holds the fifth-lowest sack rate in NFL history. He would have been a nightmare matchup for the Giants. The Chargers were also a better defense than that year’s Giants, ranking sixth in DVOA to 13th for the Giants. The Giants got hot on defense that postseason, but you could say the same thing for the Chargers, who held the Titans to six points and the high-powered Colts to 21 points before forcing three Brady picks. San Diego would not have been 12.5-point favorites, as the Patriots were in Super Bowl XLII, but the Giants probably would have gone into a matchup with the Chargers as no better than seven-point underdogs.
7. The entire narrative around the Tom Coughlin era changes
The principals of the Giants organization over the past 15 years — notably Coughlin and Manning — have built their careers around beating the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. If the Giants lose to the Chargers in 2007, the entire story changes.
Remember that Eli lost his first two postseason games in 2005 and 2006 and was terrible during the second half of 2007 before getting hot during the 2007 playoffs. After the Super Bowl win, Manning played poorly in a 2008 home playoff loss. The Giants then missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, despite going 18-14 over that time frame. I don’t think the Giants’ conservative ownership would have fired Coughlin or found a new starting quarterback to replace Manning before they won the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, but skeptical Giants fans would have seen the Coughlin/Manning era as seven years of frustration before finally breaking through.
Likewise, we view the Chargers differently. General manager A.J. Smith fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006 and hired Norv Turner as coach. That move doesn’t look especially smart with hindsight, but if Turner immediately wins a Super Bowl, Smith suddenly seems like a genius.
ESPN reporter Mike Triplett, who has been covering the Saints since 2005, told me that the Saints were leaning toward drafting Leinart as they pursued a quarterback solution during this era. Leinart eventually fell to No. 10 overall to Arizona, but without that knowledge in advance, we have to assume that the Saints would have drafted Leinart with the second overall pick.
Reggie Bush was the top prospect in many circles heading into that draft, and it was a surprise when the Texans opted to sign a deal with edge rusher Mario Williams at No. 1. In this scenario, the Jets would have found an instant replacement for the retiring Curtis Martin and surely made the draft crowd in New York City go wild by taking Bush with the fourth overall pick. D’Brickashaw Ferguson probably ended up having a better career, but in this universe, the Virginia tackle falls to the Cardinals at 10.
Scenario 2: Brees doesn’t tear his labrum at the end of 2005
There’s some hindsight in here, but the Chargers probably shouldn’t even have played Brees (or Tomlinson, who had cracked ribs) in what was a meaningless game at the end of the 2005 regular season. The 9-6 Chargers already were eliminated from the playoffs. They were on the road against a 12-3 Broncos team that had nothing to play for to the point that they inserted quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt for the second half. Rivers had spent virtually all of his first two seasons on the bench; it’s bizarre that the Chargers didn’t give him a start in what should have been an obvious situation to get some reps. Instead, Brees went out there and tore his labrum on a hit from John Lynch.
Even before the injury, Smith had a difficult decision looming with Brees, who had emerged as a useful passer after the Chargers acquired Rivers. (Remember, we’re ignoring Scenario 1 and treating everything up until the end of 2005 as gospel.) The Chargers had given Brees the non-exclusive franchise tag after a Pro Bowl season in 2004, and while he played well in 2005, it was closer to good than great. There were arguments to be made that Brees was a product of his weapons, as he could hand the ball to Tomlinson and throw to Gates or Keenan McCardell.
After the injury, the Chargers thought about slapping Brees with a transition tag to try to keep him around, but the nature of the labrum repair and the CBA rules prevented them from doing so. The Chargers offered Brees an incentive-laden long-term deal with one year of guaranteed money, which Brees turned down to enter unrestricted free agency.
If the injury never happened, though, the Chargers would have gone into the offseason with Brees as a possible franchise tag candidate and Rivers looking for a chance to start. What would have happened? Here’s the most likely scenario:
1. The Chargers franchise Brees before signing him to a long-term extension
While Smith loved Rivers enough to go after him in the 2004 draft, it’s just too difficult to believe that any team would let a healthy Pro Bowl quarterback leave at the age of 26 to play a guy who had eight career pass attempts. The Chargers had the cap space to retain Brees, and while using the franchise tag on him could have led the organization down a Kirk Cousins-esque path, Brees’ relationship with the organization didn’t seem damaged enough for that to occur. The fact the Chargers were even talking about offering Brees a long-term deal after his labrum injury suggests that they would have leaned that way if both were healthy.
2. The Chargers trade Rivers …
While Rivers hadn’t played, there were enough teams who were interested in him before the 2004 draft to suggest that he would have retained meaningful trade value. He still had four years left to go on his rookie deal at a cost of less than $4 million per season, which would have made him a relative bargain at a time when rookie contracts were a lot more expensive than they are now.
There would have been no shortage of suitors. My first instinct would have been to send Rivers to the Raiders, given how Al Davis would have had no lack of fondness for a trash-talking quarterback who threw downfield as frequently as Rivers. At the same time, though, Davis passed on Rivers during the 2004 draft, and I doubt the Chargers would have traded Rivers within the AFC West.
Other teams would have been in the running. The Saints, obviously, were looking for a new quarterback, but I don’t think they would have given up the second overall pick for Rivers. The Jets had just signed Chad Pennington to a huge extension, but concerns about Pennington’s future after shoulder surgery would have put Gang Green in the market for Rivers. (To their infinite wisdom, the article I linked suggests that the Jets were interested in Brees but concerned about his height.) The Broncos, Cardinals and Titans all took quarterbacks in the first round of the 2006 draft, suggesting they might have been interested in Rivers.
3. … to the Lions
Detroit makes the most sense. The Lions gave up on the Steve Mariucci and Joey Harrington era after the 2005 season, replacing Mariucci with the combination of Rod Marinelli as coach and former Rams offensive wizard Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Harrington was eventually traded to the Dolphins, as the Lions signed 34-year-old Jon Kitna to a four-year, $11 million deal to take over as starter. You can imagine they would have preferred Rivers.
This changes the course of Lions history in ways both good and bad. Let’s say the Lions send the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft to the Chargers for Rivers and San Diego’s fifth-round selection. This doesn’t go well for the Chargers, who now inherit disappointing Ernie Sims, an athletic linebacker who never found his way in Detroit. They send Rivers and quietly effective inside linebacker Tim Dobbins to the Midwest.
As a comfortable upgrade on Kitna, Rivers leads the Lions to a 7-9 season in 2006 and keeps them competent in the seasons before Jim Schwartz arrives to town. The 0-16 season never happens with Rivers under center as opposed to the trio of Kitna, Daunte Culpepper and Dan Orlovsky. Because Rivers prevents the Lions from going 3-13 in 2006, though, the Lions don’t have the second overall pick in the 2007 draft. As a result, they aren’t in a position to draft Calvin Johnson. Instead, they settle in at 14 and take the highest-drafted wideout left in the pool, LSU’s Dwayne Bowe.
4. The core of that Lions team — and most of the NFL — ends up elsewhere
OK, let’s breathe here. I already mentioned what happens with the 2006 draft. In 2007, the Raiders still take JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, and let’s do the Browns a solid and trust them to take Joe Thomas with what would now be the second overall pick.
The Buccaneers drafted edge rusher Gaines Adams with the third overall pick, but in our universe, they’re the ones who end up with Calvin Johnson. Jon Gruden comes away with a franchise wideout, and Megatron’s 2008 season (1,331 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns) is enough of an upgrade on Michael Clayton to slow Tampa’s late-season losing streak after a 9-5 start and push the Bucs into the postseason. The trip to the playoffs saves Gruden’s job. Adams goes to the Jets at No. 6, Vernon Gholston falls further into the first round, and the rest of the 2008 draft stays relatively flat.
The Lions no longer have the first pick in the 2009 draft, though, and they don’t take Matthew Stafford. The Rams instead have the first selection, and while the real-life Rams took never-was tackle Jason Smith with the No. 2 pick, our alternate-universe Rams find their quarterback of the future by drafting Stafford. Smith moves further down the tackle carousel in the first round, but we’re more concerned with the quarterback implications to come.
Obviously, if the Rams draft Stafford in 2009, they don’t draft Sam Bradford with the top pick in 2010. Stafford was 2-8 and threw 20 interceptions across 10 starts as a rookie, so it’s entirely possible that the Rams would have been just as bad with Stafford as they were with Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller and the unforgettable Keith Null in real life. Instead of making the RG III trade in 2012, the Rams’ big trade down comes in 2010, when they trade the rights to Bradford to Washington for the fourth overall selection and Washington’s 2011 first-round pick. Those picks turn into left tackle Trent Williams and edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan. Not a bad haul! (In this universe, Washington also doesn’t trade for Donovan McNabb, who sticks around in Philadelphia for one more season before being released.)
This seems like a net positive for the Rams, who avoid the Bradford era and presumably never hire Jeff Fisher. The downside is that they don’t need to trade up in the draft to grab Jared Goff, so the Rams team we see in 2018 looks totally different from the roster we currently see in real life, even if the timing still works to make Sean McVay the coach. Would McVay help take Stafford to the next level?
The Lions, who need a wide receiver without Megatron, instead use the 10th pick of the 2009 draft on Michael Crabtree. In 2009, Rivers’ Lions are good enough to avoid the top of the draft, a move that costs them Ndamukong Suh the following season. The Seahawks keep the Oregon product in the Pacific Northwest by drafting Suh sixth, with Russell Okung falling to the 49ers at 11. The Lions, drafting 13th, find some help for their defensive line by drafting Michigan product Brandon Graham. The Eagles draft Derrick Morgan. This goes on.
Part of that decision involves a promise that the Buccaneers will move up to the second overall pick and draft Robert Griffin III, with Tampa sending three first-round picks to the Vikings to make the trade happen. With the services of Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman no longer required, Tampa sends its 24-year-old passer to the Saints — remember them? — for a second-round pick.
5. The Chargers win Super Bowl XLII
That thing you saw in Scenario 1 still happens.
Scenario 3: Brees signs with the Dolphins
This is the most plausible scenario of the three, of course, because it nearly happened. Brees hit free agency and met with the Dolphins and coach Nick Saban. Miami, coming off a 9-7 season in Saban’s debut campaign, had 34-year-old Gus Frerotte as the starting quarterback. The Dolphins already had a pair of stud running backs in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and Saban was on his way to figuring out the defense, as the Dolphins would finish fifth in scoring defense the following season.
Instead, the Dolphins turned down Brees after he took a physical and opted to solve their problems via trade, sending a second-round pick to the Vikings for Daunte Culpepper and a sixth-round pick to the Lions for Joey Harrington. The Minnesota star had racked up 4,717 passing yards in a Pro Bowl campaign for the Vikings in 2004, but his 2005 season included a multi-ligament knee injury and an infamous boat trip on Lake Minnetonka.
Things went poorly. The trio of Culpepper, Harrington and Cleo Lemon combined to post a passer rating of 71.2, the fifth-worst mark in the league. Brees posted a 96.2 rating in New Orleans. The Dolphins finished with the fourth-fewest points in football. Saban swore he wouldn’t leave … and then bailed for Alabama after the season anyway. Saban helped rescue a Bama program that had gone 26-24 under Mike Shula over the previous four seasons. Let’s see what might have happened if the Dolphins had ignored their doctors and signed Brees to a six-year deal.
1. Saban stays in Miami and the college football landscape changes immeasurably
We don’t have time to get into all the possibilities. Let’s start with the obvious one. Alabama needs a head coach. When Sports Illustrated explored this what-if possibility in 2017, they suggested that Bobby Petrino would have taken over. That’s one possibility, but at the time, Alabama’s top candidate for the job was West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, with South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier as the backup option.
None of those hires would have hit Saban’s heights. Grobe, coming off of an 11-win season at Wake Forest, never posted a 10-win season again and is out of football. Tedford had just finished a 10-win season at California and didn’t get there again until 2017 at Fresno State. Johnson went on to enjoy steady success at Georgia Tech, although his lone ACC title from 2009 was vacated after the NCAA found that Tech improperly let Demaryius Thomas play when he should have been ineligible.
Let’s say they hire Tedford. He probably lasts four or five years with the program. Alabama’s undefeated 14-0 season in 2009 never happens. Bama probably doesn’t recruit Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram to come to Tuscaloosa. Maybe the Crimson Tide lose Julio Jones to someone out of state. The entire complexion of their program changes, and their top players spread out throughout college football in ways that extend even beyond the purview of this hypothetical.
While Welker coincidentally started his career with the Chargers, by the end of the 2005 season, he had grown into a role as a slot receiver and return man for the Dolphins. He racked up 67 catches for 687 yards with Miami in 2006, but the Dolphins were more concerned with getting the ball to big-play artist Chris Chambers, who caught a truly awful 38.3 percent of his targets, the lowest catch rate in modern history for a player with 150 targets or more.
The Patriots subsequently pounced, threatening to sign Welker as a restricted free agent before eventually trading second- and seventh-round picks for the Texas Tech product. You know what happened next. It’s easy to imagine how Welker might have blossomed earlier with Brees at the helm in 2006 instead of the motley crew of quarterbacks throwing him the football. It’s simultaneously difficult to imagine Saban letting a core special-teamer and valuable wideout leave to go play for Saban’s good friend and former boss up north.
I haven’t talked a lot about alternate outcomes for the Saints in the other scenarios, but here’s one that makes sense. In this universe, we know the Saints have hired Cowboys assistant Sean Payton and don’t have a viable option at quarterback. After Brees turns them down to sign with the Dolphins, their QB depth chart consists of Aaron Brooks, Todd Bouman and Jamie Martin.
Payton had a backup plan, though. Once the Eastern Illinois starting quarterback, Payton encouraged the Cowboys to go after one of his successors at the school in the 2003 draft. Dallas eventually snatched up Romo as an undrafted free agent and let him develop for three years without throwing a pass behind the likes of Bledsoe, Vinny Testaverde and Quincy Carter.
By the 2006 offseason, the Cowboys knew that they might have a starting quarterback prospect. More importantly, they knew that Payton was interested in giving Romo a shot to start in New Orleans. In his book, former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells suggests that the Saints offered a third-round pick for Romo, which would have been a remarkable price for an undrafted quarterback with zero NFL regular-season attempts. The Cowboys responded by asking for a second-round pick, to which the Saints demurred.
Without Brees, the Saints pay Parcells his price. They send their second-round pick to the Cowboys, a pick that was eventually dealt to the Browns and used to acquire future Pro Bowl linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The Saints traded down and used the second-round pick they acquired in the Browns trade to take Roman Harper, who also developed into a Pro Bowler. In either scenario, the Cowboys end up with a Pro Bowl defender.
They also rue the trade from the moment Romo steps onto the field in New Orleans. The next decade mostly goes as you saw, just with Romo taking the place of Brees in the Superdome. He naturally suffers a few more injuries, leading to wider variance for the Saints, but it’s Romo who stands underneath a confetti shower after upsetting the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
In the real world, the Cowboys benched Bledsoe after six games of the 2006 season for Romo, who went 6-4 as a starter and led the Cowboys into the playoffs, where he famously fumbled a snap that cost Dallas the game against the Seahawks. While Romo never delivered a long playoff run in a Cowboys uniform, the alternate reality is even more distressing for Cowboys fans. …
4. Dallas spends the next decade on Miami’s trip through the QB wilderness
After turning down Brees, the Dolphins spent the next six years sorting through various short-term (Chad Pennington and Trent Green) and long-term (John Beck and Chad Henne) options under center. The only one who delivered a successful season was Pennington, who went 11-5 in a 2008 season in which the Dolphins brought the Wildcat to the NFL. They traded up in 2012 to draft Ryan Tannehill, who has delivered competent play when healthy without ever threatening to turn into a superstar.
In this scenario, the Saints have Romo, the Dolphins have Brees, and the Cowboys are the ones left out in our game of musical chairs. So let’s see what they would have done. In 2006, they would have been stuck riding things out with Bledsoe, who would retire after the season. They started 3-3, but let’s pencil them in for a 6-10 season and the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft.
The top quarterback in that year’s class was Brady Quinn, whom the Cowboys didn’t take with Romo on board. (The Browns actually traded up to Dallas’ pick to grab the Notre Dame product.) In our universe, the Cowboys could grab Quinn at 7, but let’s take them in a different direction. With Julius Jones struggling and Marion Barber yet to break out in a featured role, let’s fulfill a long-rumored possibility and have the Cowboys pip the Vikings to Palestine, Texas, product Adrian Peterson. He might not have been as productive without a passing game, but AD is going to put up some massive numbers wherever he goes, Dallas included.
Peterson can’t play quarterback, so with Bledsoe retiring, the Cowboys need a short-term replacement. In 2006, they opt for free agent Kerry Collins, who would eventually sign with the Titans in August. Collins spends the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the team and delivering solid, unspectacular quarterback play. Dallas drafts Beck out of BYU in the second round of the 2007 draft, but he fails to impress in three starts as an injury fill-in for Collins. The Cowboys go 7-9 and 8-8 over Collins’ two seasons at the helm.
In 2008, the Cowboys plan on heading into the season with Beck and new acquisition Brad Johnson at quarterback before another oft-rumored tryst occurs. Jerry Jones once tried to trade for Brett Favre, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Cowboys. After un-retiring and reporting to Packers camp, Favre gets his chance, as the Cowboys send a conditional pick to the Packers for the future Hall of Famer.
Things go well! An offense with Favre, Peterson, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten has no problem moving the football, and the Cowboys make it to the playoffs under Wade Phillips during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. They run all the way to the NFC title game in 2009, only for Favre to throw a critical interception to set up a game-winning Saints field goal. Cowboys fans rue the day they traded New Orleans their starting quarterback, as Romo celebrates his first career victory in AT&T Stadium.
In 2010, Father Time finally comes for Favre, who is replaced in the starting lineup in December by Longhorns legend Colt McCoy, Dallas’ third-round pick in that year’s draft. Peterson runs into a wall 300 times. Phillips gets fired and replaced by Jason Garrett. The Cowboys turn over things to McCoy for the 2011 season, and he produces underwhelming numbers in 13 starts, posting a passer rating of 74.6. With Peterson missing four games due to injury and failing to hit 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career, the Cowboys go 6-10, leaving them with the sixth pick in the draft.
In the real world, the Cowboys used that selection on Morris Claiborne. In our universe, they head in a different direction. After failing to trade up to grab RG III, Jerry Jones instructs Garrett to find a young quarterback to build around over the next five years. Garrett doesn’t have to look far to find his new quarterback: The Cowboys use the pick on Texas A&M prospect Ryan Tannehill.
5. Saban and Belichick engage in mild nuclear war
What, you think Belichick is going to get along with one of his old friends when they play each other twice a year? Two years wasn’t really a long enough time to launch a feud, but once the Dolphins start threatening to compete with Brees and Saban’s defense in the AFC East, things get juicy. By the time 2009 rolls around, Belichick and Saban are at each other’s throats like the classic days of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.
Eventually, it seems likely that Saban would have grown weary of the NFL and found the right college job. Let’s say Tedford gets fired after the 2010 season and Alabama comes calling. Stuck in a division with Brady and Belichick and in a conference with Peyton Manning, Saban sees an opportunity and takes it. The timing works out just right for Michigan alum Stephen Ross to pursue the coach he nearly hired in real life around that time, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh goes to the Dolphins, with the 49ers eventually hiring their second choice behind Harbaugh: fired Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
The real thing
Of course, the reality we ended up getting was pretty fun, too. Brees went to the Saints and helped save football in New Orleans, winning a Super Bowl along the way. Saban rebuilt Alabama into a powerhouse and was responsible for one of the most memorable plays in sports history with the “kick-six.” (Alabama residents with red cars might not find that one to be quite as fun.) The Patriots made it to the Super Bowl undefeated in 2007, only to be felled by another one of the greatest plays in sports history. It’s an enjoyable exercise, but I suspect Brees — and Saints fans — are quite happy with how things turned out.
NEW ORLEANS — Teddy Bridgewater and head coach Sean Payton both said it was too soon to speculate on whether they might consider extending Bridgewater’s one-year contract beyond 2018 after the New Orleans Saints acquired him from the New York Jets in a trade Wednesday.
For now, anyway, Bridgewater said he was more than happy to wait and learn behind Saints starter Drew Brees.
Although Bridgewater, 25, has had only a day to process his second move in six months, he said his first reaction was excitement because he has been studying the Saints’ offense since he was in college at Louisville.
“I definitely don’t mind waiting,” said Bridgewater, who began his career as a first-round draft pick with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 before a major 2016 knee injury wiped out nearly two full seasons of his career. “For me, I get to take advantage of this opportunity to grow as a man and as a football player.
“I’ve been following this offense since I was in college, and to be able to be a part of it now, it’s a great feeling,” said Bridgewater, who explained that he tried to pick about three quarterbacks and offenses to study each offseason to try and better his own game. “You watch the tape, you look at the numbers and things like that, and you say, ‘Wow.’ It’s an opportunity to be a part of something like that.
“I don’t mind waiting. I get to learn from one of the best players to ever play this game, get to be in the room with a great group of guys, get to learn from Coach Payton. So I look forward to that.”
Bridgewater didn’t play in the Saints’ preseason finale Thursday night, but he watched from the sideline and spent time talking shop with Brees as the game was going on.
Payton said the Saints did not pursue Bridgewater in March, when he signed a one-year, $6 million with the Jets that included up to $9 million more in “not likely to be earned” incentives based on playing time, yards and touchdowns.
But Payton, who is close friends with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, said the Saints have always liked Bridgewater. And they became even more intrigued by him when they saw how healthy and efficient he looked with the Jets during the preseason.
And clearly the Saints weren’t as enamored this summer with their other backup options — Tom Savage and Taysom Hill — though Payton didn’t spell that out as the reason why the Saints were willing to trade a third-round draft pick to New York for Bridgewater and a sixth-round draft pick.
When asked if the deal was just about improving the backup QB position for 2018, or if it was also about getting the chance to evaluate a young quarterback up close, Payton said, “All of the above.”
“You get a young, talented player who is accurate,” said Payton, who talked about “rooting for” Bridgewater from afar while he recovered from a major injury. “He’s an outstanding kid — he’s not a kid anymore, but he’s got great makeup, great football IQ. We liked how he played in the preseason. We think a player like that’s valuable. So we’re excited to have him.
“[He makes] good decisions, [he’s] accurate, smart, can move, can make the first guy miss, he’s a winner, he won in college, he’s won in the NFL. I’ll stop there.”
Payton added, “It’s a quarterback-driven league, and we’re excited to have him.”
When asked specifically if he could see the Saints trying to extend Bridgewater beyond this year, Payton said, “We’ll see. We don’t have to decide any of that right now.”
Asked a similar question, Bridgewater said with a laugh, “If we could all predict the future, I think we’d all probably be millionaires or something like that right now. But for me, I just have to live in the now and take advantage of this opportunity I have today. I can’t live too far down the road. I’m gonna continue to grow and want to be the best football player I can be for the New Orleans Saints.”
Bridgewater became expendable in New York because first-round draft pick Sam Darnold appears ready to start in Week 1 (or soon after) and the Jets also have a reliable veteran option in Josh McCown.
Bridgewater credited the Jets for being “professional” about the trade. He laughed at the stories about how the Jets were boarding their team buses to travel to their final preseason game when the deal became official.
Bridgewater said Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan pulled him aside about 30 minutes before the buses boarded and explained to him that there was an offer.
“It’s not like they put me off on the interstate or something like that,” Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater said he tried not to worry about the trade talk this summer and focused on his development. It worked well — he completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the preseason.
Although Bridgewater knew it might take a little time to re-establish himself as a NFL starter, he said he had no uncertainty about his health or his ability heading into this summer.
“There was no uncertainty at all,” Bridgewater said. “I had worked extremely hard with the training staff, just trying to get myself back to playing ability. We put the work in, we put the time in, and it showed once the preseason games started.
“I was excited to be able to go out and compete and show off my hard work. And I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to work with those guys in New York, and I’m looking forward to this moment I’m in now.”
Gun Flex Right Stack 394 Dragon Smoke Kill Turbo Sucker Right
It wasn’t a particularly special play in New Orleans Saints lore — or at least you wouldn’t think so. Just a 6-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram in the first quarter of a 2016 win against Tampa Bay.
But NFL Films had Sean Payton and Drew Brees mic’d up for that game and captured them relaying that playcall through the headset and into the huddle. So I used it as an example when each of them agreed to sit down and dissect just what exactly they’re talking about when they rattle off these cryptic, almost comically long sets of code words.
When I read it off to Brees to see if he could remember when the Saints might have used it, his instant recall was as mind-boggling as the terminology itself.
“I feel like we’ve called that play twice,” said the 39-year-old quarterback, who is heading into his 13th season with Payton in New Orleans. “I recall we ran one of those plays against Tampa like two years ago and scored on it.”
Wait. Can he do that with every play?
“I’d say I’ve got pretty good recall on most plays — but especially ones like that one, which was a bit of a specialty play,” said Brees, who explained that the Saints called two plays in the huddle in that instance, hoping they would get the right defensive look to “sucker” the Buccaneers into a misdirection run.
“But we could just sit there and go through a call sheet and just go play after play, and I could give you the history of it as we’ve been with the Saints,” Brees continued. “And I could probably rattle off that same playcall in certain games in critical situations. ‘Man, this was a game-changer. Or this was a game winner and this was this and that was that. Or this guy made this adjustment on this play.'”
So if I asked Brees to remember the call from, say, the two-point conversion pass to Lance Moore in Super Bowl XLIV?
“Bunch Right Tare Slash 37 Weak F Kill Q8 Solid Z Speed Smash,” he fired back so quickly that he might as well have been reciting his phone number.
It might not sound like poetry, but that’s the kind of terminology that has led to Brees and Payton being so successful together for more than a decade.
Since they arrived in 2006, the Saints have gained more yards than any team in NFL history over a 12-year span, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — averaging 404.1 per game. Their collaboration has been especially impressive considering they cut their teeth in different offensive systems.
Brees ran the spread offense at Purdue, then began his NFL career by running a version of the Air Coryell system with the San Diego Chargers that uses a series of numbers to identify passing routes. Payton, meanwhile, first began to develop his version of the West Coast offense (which uses names for the routes and numbers for the protections) under Jon Gruden as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brees said it was hard for him to adjust when he came to New Orleans — like “learning a new language” — before it ultimately became second nature.
“You’re really talking about a Mac vs. a personal computer,” said Payton, who laughed at the memory of coaching-pioneer Paul Brown being the first to send in playcalls from the sideline and trying to use his own secret communication device in the quarterback’s headset back in the 1950s before the league outlawed it.
“All systems can give you the same type of plays. It’s just, ‘How is it communicated? Are we naming the formation? Are we numbering the protection and then naming the route?’ It varies — and all are effective,” Payton said. “All of us, though, are searching to streamline that constantly. So you find yourself with words that you’re implementing to be one syllable — you know, ‘wasp’ — or those terms that come out of your mouth cleanly and quickly.
“In your hurry-up or no-huddle, you might just say a word, and then everyone’s understanding, ‘It’s this play.'”
That goes for the trick plays that everyone gets excited about in practice all week, too. Like the unforgettable “Philly Special” that just helped the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Or the Saints’ classic “Superdome Special” reverse touchdown by receiver Devery Henderson when they reopened the Dome after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Everyone knows what to do on those plays.
But other times, more is more when it comes to jamming information into a playcall.
NFL Jargon Dissected
Gun Flex Right Stack 394 Dragon Smoke Kill Turbo Sucker Right is on the longer end of the Saints’ playcalls. But Brees said it’s pretty common — especially since they like to call so many two-play packages in the huddle instead of the classic technique of audibling at the line of scrimmage and trying to yell information across the field.
So what does it all mean? Here’s the breakdown, courtesy of one of the most dynamic offensive duos in NFL history:
Gun Flex Right Stack: That’s the formation. “Gun” means Brees is in the shotgun. “Flex” means the Y receiver is flexed out a little bit from the line of scrimmage. And “Stack” means the two receivers on Brees’ left side are essentially stacked on top of one another in the slot.
394: That’s the protection. The “3” signifies that it’s a three-step drop, which Brees said tells the offensive line to be “quick and aggressive.” And the “94” signifies a max protection, so everyone should be able to block long enough to at least get the ball off on a pass play.
Dragon Smoke: That’s a route concept — in this case a quick pass designed to beat a blitz. Payton said the receivers would know whether to run a “drag” route or a “smoke” route based on the look the defense is giving or the game situation. The routes are where these names usually get most creative — like Moore’s “speed smash” to the corner of the end zone in the Super Bowl. Or “Harvey” or “Hank” or “Henry” (variations that all signify a hook route).
Kill: That’s the key to this play — the word that signifies Brees is calling two possible plays in the huddle. If he yells, “Kill!, Kill!, Kill!” before the snap, he’s switching to the second play (which he did on Ingram’s touchdown run).
Turbo Sucker Right: That’s the run play Brees switched to when he saw the defense giving the look he wanted. “Turbo” means the Z receiver went in motion from the left side to the right side. And “Sucker” means it’s a misdirection play that looks like Brees might hand off to the Z receiver on a jet sweep as he comes across. Instead, Brees hands the ball to Ingram, who runs up the middle between the right guard and the right tackle.
“I knew if we got the right look for the run play, it would be a walk-in,” Brees said. “So it all drew up exactly the way we wanted. Those are always the best kind.”
The obvious question is, “Why do the playcalls have to be so long?”
Well, they don’t.
Coaches can simplify their scheme as much as necessary. Or even have all the plays listed on a wristband, which is what Brees did at Purdue. And yes, nearly two decades later he can still tell you that Play No. 33 on his old Purdue wristband was a “74 fade.”
But as Payton explained, the longer the call, the more information is being conveyed.
“If you just come up with a one-syllable name, it’s probably gonna be easier on the [quarterback] and it’s probably gonna stress some others a little bit more,” Payton said. “I can call, ’22 Flanker Drive.’ Boom. But if I call, ’22 Flanker Drive, Halfback Burst,’ I just helped the halfback out a little bit more. If I call, ’22 Flanker Drive, Halfback Burst, X go.’ Well, it’s the same play, but I’ve alerted the X on a go. So it’s information. And how much are you choosing to give? And who are you giving it to?
“And I would say, if it’s long for Brees, that doesn’t mean it’s long for the next guy. He likes the information, studies it, likes spitting it out. But it’s only as effective as your execution.”
Payton said his playcalls weren’t as long with quarterbacks like Quincy Carter and Vinny Testaverde when he was calling plays for the Dallas Cowboys or Kerry Collins with the New York Giants. And they wouldn’t be as long if a young backup like Taysom Hill was thrown into the game.
Former Saints quarterback Garrett Grayson, a third-round pick in 2015, admitted that he struggled to spit out the long playcalls with confidence and authority in the huddle during his first year or two in New Orleans — one of the reasons he flamed out in less than three years.
Hill said the Saints’ playcalls are the longest he has ever been around.
“We’re not gonna eliminate a player, though,” Payton said. “We’ll reduce so we can see them play. It’s not like, ‘If he can’t do that, he’s out.’ Because, well, what if a guy’s super talented?”
As for the terms like “Blue 80” that Brees yells at the line of scrimmage — he wasn’t as open with those.
“We’re getting into the proprietary information there,” Brees said coyly. “Any color number has existential meaning. There’s some stuff that means something (including the snap count) and some stuff that doesn’t.
“But I can’t divulge that.”
Payton’s NFL education
There was about 10 minutes of awkward silence in Payton’s office as he went down a YouTube rabbit hole trying to find a clip of Gruden calling one of those “either-or” plays in Super Bowl XXXVII, which led to a Keenan McCardell touchdown catch.
He finally found it — South Right Nickel 41 Kill 374 Wasp.
It’s not hard to pinpoint where Payton developed a large chunk of his offensive system and tendencies. He wound up with a kindred spirit when he landed his first NFL coaching gig in Philly 21 years ago and started learning terms like “Spider 2 Y Banana” from Gruden, then the Eagles’ offensive coordinator.
“He was very, very important [in my development], because it was a foundation of offensive football specific to terminology, formations, red zone, third down, quarterback play,” Payton said. “Just like years later when I arrived for three years in Dallas with Bill [Parcells] and the element of being a head coach.
“Sometimes you have some control over those, and other times you don’t. … But I was certainly fortunate to have ended up in Philly in ’97 to be around him and [longtime NFL coach Bill] Callahan. It was a forward-thinking room in regards to offensive football, and it was critical for me.
“You realize very quickly how much you still needed to learn and didn’t know, and then you really become a sponge and start taking it all in.”
Payton’s reverence for Parcells as a mentor is well-documented. Some of that is reflected in Payton’s offensive scheme, too — like the way the Saints label their series of runs, for example.
Brees also has been influential, as well as longtime Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., since all three arrived together in ’06 and started collaborating on the offense.
Brees is hardly the only NFL quarterback who speaks West Coast offense so fluently, because it has been the most popular system in the league since Bill Walsh made it legendary in the 1980s.
But Payton said Brees’ recall is part of what makes the 11-time Pro Bowler so special. And it’s part of what has allowed Payton to run one of the most diverse and sophisticated schemes in the league.
“His ability to study it, hear it … the stress he has on Tuesday night when he gets the list and Wednesday’s practice because he wants to get it right, and then he has it by [the end of the week],” Payton said. “I can give him the beginning of that: ‘Drew, give me Gun Flex Right Stack 394 …’ and he’ll just turn and [wave me off]. He’ll know it.”
Brees, who speaks highly of past coaching mentors like Joe Tiller at Purdue and Marty Schottenheimer, Brian Schottenheimer, Norv Turner and Cam Cameron in San Diego, said he takes great pride in mastering the game plan throughout the week. He wants to be able to anticipate what’s coming next and spend extra time between plays looking for clues in the defense, etc. He also wants to be prepared in case the headset cuts out, so he doesn’t have to burn a timeout.
When asked how often he hears the first three or four words of a playcall and knows what the rest is going to be, Brees said, “about 99 percent of the time.”
When asked how often he doesn’t even need to hear the first word, Brees laughed.
“Well, in certain situations,” he said, “a lot.”
In fact, the hardest part for Brees now is that sometimes he has a little too much recall.
“This is 12 years now in this offense, and we’ve evolved so much,” he said. “We call a play and I look at Pete Carmichael and [longtime quarterbacks coach] Joe Lombardi and Sean Payton, and we can sit there and be like, ‘OK, we’ve taught this four different ways over the last 12 years.’ And it might have been where we taught it one way for a little while, and then there was a better way, then we said, ‘No, we like the old way better.’ Or there might be, ‘Well, what if we tried this?’ So there’s plenty of times where a play will come up and we’re like, ‘OK, how are we teaching this one again?’
“It’s just constant evolution. That’s part of what’s been so fun about this.”