What qualifies someone to be a legend? Is it winning a championship? Breaking every record in the history books? Off-the-field contributions to the community? Overcoming adversity? It’s an argument that is debated heavily every year with no definitive answer in sight. Truth is, there is no answer. Every person has their own legacy to leave that makes them special in their own way. Now, picture a player you believe is the greatest of all time. Did you picture Brady, Favre, Marino, Manning, or Montana? Maybe you thought of Bradshaw, Kelly, or Tarkenton? All of those players had a severe impact on the game we all love and watch today, but it seems there is one you forgot about.
Drew Brees is the starting quarterback of the New Orleans Saints and has been the most overlooked player in recent history when it comes to this debate. To truly understand why, let’s go back to 1998 when he was declared the starting quarterback for Purdue University. He was thrown into the new spread offense system from Coach Tiller and the team took off. He threw for 3,983 yards, 39 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, leading the team to a 9-4 record and bringing them to the Alamo Bowl, where they defeated Kansas State 37-34. It was the beginning of something great. For the next two seasons, the team would return to two more bowl games with a combined record of 15-9 with Brees at the helm. In his final season, he won the Maxwell Award for being the nation’s most outstanding player, an award second only to the Heisman Trophy. He finished third in the voting for the award that year. After the 2000 season, he declared for the NFL Draft.
While at Purdue, Brees set many records including the longest pass in NCAA history (99 yards to Vinny Sutherland in 1999), most passing yards by a Big Ten player (11,792), most touchdowns (90), and countless more within the conference.
Following the combine, there were doubts about the young quarterback based off his height. Listed at 6’0, scouts were afraid that he would struggle getting a full vision of the field, along with the notes of him lacking arm strength and his success only in the spread offense. He ended up going to the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the draft, a move that was expected as his draft stock was hurt a little by these notes. In his first season as a starter, replacing the aging Doug Flutie, he threw for 3,284 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions while leading the Chargers to an 8-8 record. It was a mediocre season for him but 2003 was when things took a turn in another direction. He performed horribly by missing passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns (15 INT – 11 TD). It was a bad season that forced the Chargers to draft Philip Rivers from NC State in 2004, putting pressure on Drew Brees to keep his job.
The 2004 NFL season was the year Brees emerged as a special quarterback. In 15 games, he brought the Chargers to a 12-4 record with 3,159 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions, giving him a 104.8 passer rating. His performance that season helped the Chargers win the AFC West. Unfortunately, they would end up losing in the Wild Card round to the Jets in overtime 20-17. The following season, he had another 3,000 yard year that was cut short in the final game of the season. He took a massive hit from Broncos safety John Lynch and had to be pulled from the game. Doctors revealed he had a torn labrum in his throwing arm and damage in his rotator cuff, meaning it was unknown if he would have the same throwing motion. He ran the risk of not being able to play the game he loved.
Against all odds, he made a full recovery but was faced with another serious decision. He had three offers on the table from the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, and the San Diego Chargers to be their starting quarterback. He turned down the five-year deal from the Chargers to look for a new start. He ended up choosing the Saints over the Dolphins on a six-year, $60 million deal.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans was looking for something to bring the city back to its feet. Luckily, Brees and the new head coach Sean Payton were able to take this team and bring them to a 10-6 record while heading all the way to the NFC Championship against the Chicago Bears. It was an emotional moment for the city who was yearning for something to make them feel better. He ended up leading the league in passing yards with 4,418, 26 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. With all of these feats, he finished second in MVP voting behind his former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson.
For the next three years, Brees put up unbelievable statistical numbers, trailblazing the term for a pocket passer while struggling to make the playoffs. They kept falling short of the Super Bowl, the ultimate goal for every team. It was the same message repeating itself and it was never-ending. It ended during the 2009 season when Brees and the Saints went on a hot streak and finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and booked themselves a ticket to Super Bowl XLIV to face the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning. After years of struggle, the Saints finally won the holy grail and beat the Colts 31-17. Brees won the Super Bowl MVP award and set an NFL record for the highest completion percentage in a season (70.62).
The following nine seasons were filled with heartbreak and insane achievements. To understand the scope of the records he has set, here is a list of all records he has broken and set:
- Passing Yards (Career): 74,437
- Pass Completions (Career): 6,586
- Completion Percentage (Career): 67.32
- Consecutive Games with a TD pass: 52
- Consecutive Seasons with 4,000+ yds passing: 12
There are more records but these are the most significant ones that solidifies himself as one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. For those nine seasons, his stat line rarely changed or strayed off the road. His team struggled though and made the playoffs five of the nine years and did not make the Super Bowl again.
His stats and his history with the NFL is undeniably of elite status, but his work in the city of New Orleans has been the highlight of his time with the Saints. In 2003, he founded the Brees Dream Foundation, a charity organization that supports cancer patients and research in honor of his wife’s aunt. When he moved to New Orleans, he shifted the misson to include helping rebuild and lift people out of the deep situation in the hurricane-ravaged area, winning the 2006 Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Afterwards, in 2007, he partnered with Operation Kids, to restore and fix the community facilities, academic, and recreational places in the inner city. Since then, the city has gotten much aid and help that was needed in such a dire time.
Revisiting the argument for greatest player of all time, who do you think of now that you know these statistics? Drew Brees shows the fans that it doesn’t matter how many championships you have, or how many records you set, or what others put you out to be. At the end of the day, its about creating a legacy you want to leave, not only on the field, but within your community. He is the perfect example of a legend, for the people in his city, and for the expansive world of the NFL.