The questions in the press conference following the New Orleans Saints’ loss to the Raiders followed a predictable line. The 41-year-old quarterback faced his interlocutors as the darts flew across an occasionally distorted Zoom feed:
“…showing sharp decline…” “couldn’t find a rythm…” “…passes that are a little off the mark…”
Drew Brees smiled away any talk of a decline, dismissed out of hand the notion that he was no longer able to throw downfield. But an idea has started to take hold in the public discourse, one which began towards the tail-end of last season and which the first two games of this have done nothing to quell. Articles have been written with titles as blunt as “All Washed Up?“, as NFL pundits start to see cracks in the game of an NFL great.
You see, the problem is that the numbers don’t lie, and the NFL is all about those numbers.
But let’s start with the Good numbers: the stats that ensure that Brees won’t have long to wait post-retirement before entering the NFL Hall of Fame: 77,888* yards of throwing. 10,170 pass attempts. 6,911 pass completions with a completion percentage of 66.7. 550 touchdowns. All of these are NFL all-time records, and although Tom Brady is not too far away in a couple of categories, the next best active QBs are nowhere near these figures.
Brees has been setting records since his college days – some of which haven’t been beaten to this day. The Texan may never have had the imposing physique of a Cam Newton or the speed of a Lamar Jackson, but the numbers have always been his friend. But in a game where every play is forensically pored-over and parsed into stats, there is no hiding place once those cracks begin to show.
The Saints QB has averaged a measly 4.82 ‘air’ yards per pass over the first two games of the new season. That’s not just the lowest return of this season, but the lowest by any quarterback over two games since Brett Favre back in 2009. More than 65% of his passing yards have come after the catch – suggesting that the receivers are doing the lion’s share of the work – and again that is worse than any other passer this year. The laser-beam accuracy of the past just doesn’t seem to be there, and these days Brees seems to avoid throwing downfield at all costs.
It’s early. Only two games into a 16-game season, and the Saints remain sturdy
4/6* favourites to top the gnarly NFC South and extend that season still further. The American sports landscape is notoriously a hotbed of hot takes, and perhaps all it will take is a strong showing this weekend against the Packers for the noise to subside.
The only nagging doubt is that there is one number Drew Brees can’t pass his way out of, and that number is 1979, the year he was born.
*Odds & Stats correct at time of writing.