D.A.: Could Drew Brees Actually Be Hurt By His Era?

Brees is the most proficient passer in NFL history, D.A. says, but he's somehow gotten lost in the great-QB shuffle

Damon Amendolara
December 20, 2019 - 1:06 pm

Drew Brees sets records with the same frequency most of us book flights. A handful of times every year, for what feels like forever, the future Hall of Famer adds his name again to the NFL's all-time stats ledger. On Monday night, he set another pair: career touchdowns thrown and highest completion percentage in a game. America politely appreciates records, but loves winning far more in football, so Tom Brady is the consensus GOAT even though he's older yet without the bucket of individual accolades. When reciting Brees' records, it becomes staggeringly obvious he's the most proficient passer the game has ever seen. 

• Most career passing yards
• Most career pass completions
• Most career touchdown passes
• Highest career completion percentage
• Highest single-season completion percentage
• Most consecutive games with a touchdown pass
• Most pass completions in a season
• Most 5,000 yard passing seasons
• Highest completion percentage in a game

There's always a "but" though, and everyone outside of New Orleans likes to bring it up. In fact, most people bring up the many "buts." But he plays in a pass-happy offense. But he plays in a quarterback friendly league. But he plays in a dome. But he's only won one Super Bowl. But he's only won one true road game in the playoffs. But he's just a product of his era. 

Fran Tarkenton once upon a time held every major NFL passing record. Dan Marino came along and broke all of them. Then Brett Favre took those, Peyton Manning snatched it from Favre, and now Brees is doing it to Peyton. Tarkenton held his marks for about 20 years. Marino had his for about 10. Favre and Manning owned theirs for less than five. The speed of smashing passing records is obviously speeding up into "hyper space" and Aaron Rodgers, then Patrick Mahomes will probably continue that inexorable march. 

Yes, setting all-time passing records may not be what it once was, and many would use that as a criticism of Brees. Because offenses are so wide open, rules protect quarterbacks like never before, receivers are given more space than ever, and he plays most of his games in a controlled environment, Brees is viewed like a lab-created chemical additive. This era has undoubtedly helped his stats. It took 65 years for someone to crack 5,000 yards when Marino did it in 1984. It's since been done 10 times in the last 11 years. Brees has half of those (5), but it's still looked at as a product of an era gone bonkers. 

What if, though, Brees was actually hurt by the era? Yes, the stats he has put up are certainly assisted by how the game is now governed. But he's also played third-fiddle to Manning and Brady for nearly 20 years. Brees was drafted in 2001 by the Chargers, and Peyton had already been in the league for three seasons. Manning was "the chosen one" coming out of Tennessee, hyped as perhaps the greatest quarterback prospect ever. He went 3-13 his first year in Indianapolis, but quickly turned the franchise around and had back-to-back playoff seasons by the time Brees was selected out of Purdue. By the early 2000s, Peyton had already become the new face of the NFL. At the same time Brady had begun his march toward greatest winner in the game's history. In '01, Brees' rookie season, he took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe and memorably helped lead the Patriots on a magic carpet ride to their first ever Super Bowl title. Within the next three seasons Brady would add two more championships, immediately thrusting him into conversations with legends like Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman (the only others to have 3+ rings). 

Peyton and Brady would duel 17 times, including 5 games in the postseason over the course of their career, and the chess match between Bill Belichick and the Colts offense became an art form. By '04, the regular season's most-anticipated matchup was Patriots-Colts, often played on Sunday Night Football as the entire nation watched. Usually the game decided homefield advantage in the AFC. It cast a shadow over the entire sport. 

At this time three new faces would be drafted in the first-round to lead their teams, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. The Great Quarterback Decade got ratcheted up. In his rookie seaso,n Big Ben went 15-1 as a starter, en route to the AFC Championship Game where he would lose to Brady (the first of many). Roethlisberger would hoist the Super Bowl trophy the next year and again in '08. Peyton would finally get his first title in '06. Eli led the Giants to a Vince Lombardi in '07.

As this transpired, Brees injured his shoulder and was allowed to walk by the Chargers (replaced by Rivers). He was passed on by the Dolphins, and finally landed in New Orleans. He began his career with good stats, but not great ones, and he wasn't playing in any of the games that really matter. The Saints went on a Cinderella ride in '06, lifting the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and rode it to the NFC Title Game where they lost to the Bears. But the notoriety went to all the other signal-callers. Brees had missed his opportunity to match up against Peyton in the Super Bowl. He'd have his chance a few years later. 

Brees would finally get his moment on the big stage in '09, as the Saints grabbed the top-seed in the NFC while going 13-3. He led the NFL's best offense, then won two playoff games at home against future Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Favre. Brees would beat Peyton in the Super Bowl, as a 4.5-point underdog, earning MVP honors. He had defeated three Canton-bound quarterbacks to finally climb the mountain, the confetti falling down, the nation now in love with his toddler son wearing oversized headphones during the celebration. 

But (here's that word again) Brees wouldn't stay in the spotlight. As the new decade dawned, Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl and then a regular season MVP. Eli won another. Peyton landed in Denver where he went to two more Super Bowls. Brady went on a stunning late career renaissance to win three more championships. Brees was left behind. As he stacked 5K seasons and absurd passing numbers the Saints faltered. They dealt with Bounty-Gate, bad defenses, and a few non-playoff seasons. The Saints were a fun offense to watch, but mostly considered the action movie of the NFL. It's good for a few hours of shallow entertainment, but it has no real significance. 

The last two seasons, Brees has finally been supported with a deep roster, balanced team, and solid defense. Unfortunately, he's been undermined by two gut-wrenching playoff losses, the Minneapolis Miracle and the egregious no-call in the NFC Title Game. Brady is still winning. Mahomes had become the new future of the league. The national attention always seemed to be placed somewhere other than New Orleans. This all leaves Brees with incredible longevity, eye-popping stats and a reputation as one of the truly great guys in the league. But he's not the winner Brady is. He's not the natural public face Peyton is. He's not the honky tonk gunslinger Favre was. He's not the captivating Rodgers or Mahomes. He's "just Drew," which is absurdly unfair for all he's accomplished. When people dismiss his achievements as a product of the era, it's fair to counter with the opposite. What if Brees played in an era without Brady and Manning? What if there weren't always bigger stars overshadowing his consistent excellence? What if he had better defenses? What if he didn't so often watch his late leads evaporate in playoff games as he stood on the sidelines? Perhaps Brees is not a beneficiary of the era, but instead a victim of it.  

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.