NEW ORLEANS — In the end, Drew Brees may have stayed too long, but can you blame him?
Brees, the ultimate competitor, the glass-half-full guy, the never-say-die guy, knew the talent on this Saints team.
The past four years he’s known he had a chance to return to the glory of the 2009 season and he poured it all into making it happen.
Still, it was painful to listen to analyst Troy Aikman constantly point out in the second half that the Saints would not throw the ball down the field and that the Bucs sometimes had 10 players within a few yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Saints’ two really-long pass attempts in the past two games were called for Brees' backups – a long pass call that Taysom Hill fumbled in the win over the Bears and Jameis Winston’s trick play toss to Tre’Quan Smith in Sunday’s loss.
Brees spent several of his most productive years slinging passes and setting records on teams without much defensive support, but he didn’t complain – at least not publicly. A tremendous 2017 draft class and exceptional personnel moves in the time since gave the Saints arguably their deepest team.
Brees’ playoff resume in New Orleans far exceeds anyone who came before him – nine playoff appearances, three NFC Championship games and that Super Bowl.
In addition, if you examine Brees’ playoff games here – even the losses – he always had the team with a chance to win - until yesterday. Even in 2011, with arguably the best team in club history that ended with that painful loss to San Francisco – Brees twice drove the team down the field to take the lead in the waning moments of the fourth quarter only to see the defense come up short.
In 2018’s painful loss to Minnesota, Brees brought the team back from a 17-0 deficit and into the lead before the the Stefon Diggs miracle and last year he led the team to 10 points in the final quarter to overcome a deficit before the Vikings scored a touchdown in overtime. In 2019, he drove the Saints to what would have been a winning field goal try before the officials decided to ignore two penalties on the same play.
The "experts" will dwell on the fact that he only got to one Super Bowl, lumping that with recent shortcomings and ignoring Brees' unjustly being denied a second Super Bowl berth in 2018.
But Brees’ final seasons were successful much more on guile than gun-slinging, more on methodically picking apart other teams with shorter passes that let his talented cast show what they could do.
Early in 2020 season, it was pointed out often that Brees had the least “air yards” of any quarterback in the league. Brees and the Saints overcame that for a nice mid-season run, but he suffered at least a couple of hits that cracked several ribs and punctured a lung. He came back in to play in that game, led a touchdown drive and endured a rough sack before saying he couldn’t go any more at halftime.
After finding out the extent of his injuries, I could only wonder in amazement that he hadn’t been put in the hospital immediately. Most of us would have probably cried out in agony, had to be taken out on a stretcher and had trouble walking for weeks.
Brees’ effort was similar to when he broke his thumb the year before against the Rams. He was immediately on the sideline trying to take snaps and throw the ball before discretion became the better part of valor.
Going into Sunday’s game I figured the Saints had the advantage personnel-wise at most positions, except quarterback, but they were still good enough there if they just didn’t give the game away.
The defense played well enough to win. Alvin Kamara ran the ball well and Deonte Harris was a force before he was sidelined with his recurring neck injury.
Brees’ last few seasons, he became an aging baseball pitcher who went from his fastball to becoming a finesse pitcher and spotting his throws.
But despite losing the fastball Brees, gave the team the best chance to win and he deserved the shot.
What did Brees mean to the Saints? He meant after decades of mostly mediocre football that 98 percent of the Saints games the past 15 years had relevance. He meant that fans in their teens have never known anything but really good and — often great — football from the home team.
Brees had some missteps off the field, most notably this past offseason when he faced the wrath of current and former teammates after saying that he could never agree with someone who did not stand for the National Anthem. He said it while the country was reeling from high-profile shootings of unarmed Black citizens.
Brees seemed genuinely hurt and stunned by the criticism and apologized several times. He’s been spotted in pre-game warmups this year wearing the #sayhername shirt that was worn by social activists after the killing of Breonna Taylor and he helped sponsor the Black College Football Hall of Fame event.
Cynics would say he was trying to save his final season and his post-football announcing and commercial career, but I would defer to his teammates like Michael Thomas, Demario Davis and Malcolm Jenkins, prominent activists all. They know the heart of their teammate better than anyone and if they’re satisfied, I think that speaks volumes.
Brees has been in New Orleans for 15 years now. Lots of people think the “For Sale” sign will go up in his yard and that he’ll be headed for California as soon as his decision to retire is final. Maybe. But Brees has enough money to live anywhere in the entire world without working another day in his life.
If he chooses not to be New Orleans, don’t be offended. I think it’s pretty apparent that Brees has a great affinity for the city and all it has to offer. He was Bacchus after all. He is regularly spotted in Audubon Park playing with his kids. He dines in the city’s restaurants and has spoken at local high schools.
Brees isn’t perfect. But he’s been awfully, awfully good for the city of New Orleans and we’ve been lucky to have him.
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