Drew Brees enters his 19th season with the same expectations as last year–Super Bowl or bust. As the undeniable leader of the New Orleans Saints, Brees continues to make head coach Sean Payton look brilliant having acquired the high-risk quarterback in 2006. The two of them have combined to become one of the best play-caller and quarterback tandems in NFL history.
Brees’ resume has him as one of the all-time greats, but his career still seems underrated. He may very well retire as the all-time leading passer in multiple categories while playing side-by-side with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning. Many pundits in the media will not put him in front of these signal-callers when discussing the all-time greatest quarterback, even with the gaudy statistics.
As Brees closes in on two decades experience, his passing attempts have declined. Recently the team is less dependent on him. In 2016, Brees led the league with 673 passing attempts compared to 489 attempts in 2018. Regardless, the former second-round pick still threw for 32 touchdowns and set an NFL record for completion percentage for a season (74.4). He also led the league in passing rating (115.7) and was the highest-graded quarterback in 2018 (94.0) according to Pro Football Focus.
Brees was receiving MVP consideration until the Saints offense slowed down. During the first 11 games of the 2018 season, the Saints averaged 37 points per game. That figure reduced to 19 points per game the rest of the way.
So, what changed for the Saints offense? Was it the decline of Brees’ arm strength? Many observers believe that to be true. However, let the tape explain what went wrong for the Saints offense down the stretch.
Drew Brees is still elite
There’s a definite narrative out there surrounding Brees’ decline because of a lack of arm strength. Brees still plays like an elite quarterback. Believe it or not, Brees executed the Saints offense at a high level throughout the season and kept the team in games while the rest of the offense struggled.
Brees is one of the most accurate quarterbacks of all time averaging a completion percentage of 67 percent for his career. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 14, he proves he still has it.
Below the Saints are in a weak I formation with 21 personnel against cover 1. The offense will be running a double post with receiver Michael Thomas as the primary target.
Brees displays perfect timing on this route. After a five-step drop, Brees shows excellent anticipation by letting the ball go before Thomas is out of his break. The throw is a perfectly placed dart in stride.
Against the Cowboys, Brees exhibits more sensational placement. The Saints are in a 10-personnel, 3×1 formation with bunches to the right. The Cowboys are in man to man cover 1 set. Out of the trips, Thomas runs a wheel route with the two other receivers running drag/dig in-breaking routes.
By design, the in-breaking routes are supposed to free up the wheel route. However, Pro-Bowl cornerback Byron Jones has the receiver locked up. But you can’t defend a perfect throw. Brees tosses a well-placed back-shoulder pass where only Thomas can catch it. Worst case scenario it falls incomplete–which it does.
While the play gains nothing, the Saints offense lives to play another down. Brees’ quarterback savvy and pinpoint accuracy allows him to miss low and outside where the receiver has a chance and nobody else.
Is arm strength an issue?
The naysayers have talked all off-season about Brees’s declining ability to push the ball down the field, especially down the stretch. While it’s becoming an over-exaggeration, there is evidence on film.
Take this play, for instance. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round, the Saints are in their usual 11 personnel before shifting to 00. They run a post/in concept out of a 5-wide set. The post/in or PIN concept forces a single-high safety to choose between the dig underneath or the deep post behind him.
Ginn wins off the line of the scrimmage on the post, and Brees draws the safety toward Thomas on the dig route. Brees comes back to Ginn in hopes of throwing a touchdown. The only problem is the throw as it comes up notably short. A well-placed ball would’ve been a score while the short-throw turns into an interception.
During the same game, the Saints call a level concept to the wide side that forces Brees to make a throw from the far hash toward the sideline.
The receiver gains slight separation, and Brees throws the ball on time. However, the pass floats a bit more than typical Brees fashion and allows the cornerback to make a play on the football.
There is no doubt that Brees will struggle to throw as well in January as he does in September, but he’s still a top echelon quarterback in this league. You can trust the Saints head coach to adjust his playcalling for more favorable matchups in short to intermediate areas.
The Saints were looking like an offensive juggernaut until they lost Terron Armstead who’s arguably the best asset on the offensive line. Overall, the unit was among the best in the NFL, but during the six games without Armstead, the group allowed a similar amount of sacks that they gave up in the other ten.
Armstead returns in 2019 and immediately helps an already stellar group of linemen get better. This is good news for the run game. With another successful year of running the football, Brees can throw fewer passes.
Brees is still an elite quarterback in the NFL and should have another highly productive season in 2019. Between coach Payton, a healthy offensive line, and the young core of talent surrounding him, Brees has enough in the tank for yet another Super Bowl run. No more miracles in Minneapolis. There’s no way to blow an interference call anymore.
The Saints Super Bowl window is wide open as Brees’ career comes to a close. And if you’re still hung up on his arm strength down the stretch, may I remind you of the 2015 Denver Broncos. I believe they had an all-time great quarterback struggling to sling the rock. How’d that turn out?
Marcus Johnson is a writer for the Film Room at Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheMarcJohnNFL.