Drew Brees leaves unforgettable Saints legacy; the story started in Jackson

Published 2:18 pm Monday, January 18, 2021

By Rick Cleveland

Mississippi Today

You’ve probably heard this said many different ways by many different football players, coaches and announcers. To me, Archie Manning said it best long ago after he won NFC Offensive Player of the Year and he told me, “Just remember, the quarterback always gets too much credit and too much blame.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

If it’s not written in stone somewhere, it should be.

Those words kept coming back to me Sunday night as we watched what is surely the final chapter of the compelling story that has been Drew Brees’ 15-year run with the New Orleans Saints and his 20-year NFL career.

Brees was pedestrian, at best, in the 30-20 defeat to the Tampa Bay Bucs. His numbers were telling: 19 for 34, 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. The interceptions were all converted into Tampa Bay scores. Still, Manning’s words rang true. There was plenty blame to go around. Brees’ receivers created very little space between themselves and Bucs defenders. Brees’ protection often broke down. The Saints running game sputtered. Key players were hurt. The Bucs won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They were the better team.

But here’s the deal: In similar situations over the past 15 years, we have seen Brees find a way. We have seen him zip passes into the smallest of windows to lift the Saints to unlikely victories. We have seen him somehow maneuver away from a daunting pass rush and throw a dart between defenders to a well-covered receiver at the most bleak of moments. Indeed, we have seen it so many times that it almost seems inconceivable these days when Brees’ passes arrive a nanosecond too late or miss the mark. That happened time after time Sunday night. Even a couple of his completed passes seemed to stay in the air forever.

Afterward, Brees said he had not decided whether or not to retire from the field to the NBC broadcast booth. He has already signed a post-retirement offer with the network.

Now surely is the time. His 42-year-old muscles and bones, many of the latter still mending, have pretty much made the decision for him.

But, oh, what memories he leaves us. He is a first-ballot, should-be-unanimous Hall of Famer. He would retire as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage.

Let’s think back to 2006 when the Saints signed him. Remember? Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf South region. The Saints had finished 3-13 the year before, playing home games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio because of Katrina.

Furthermore, the Saints had achieved only five winning seasons in their previous 39. The Saints came to Jackson and Millsaps College to train that summer of 2006. Sean Payton was the brand new coach, coming over from the Dallas Cowboys. Brees was on the mend from a terrible injury to his throwing shoulder suffered the season before in San Diego. Many experts – among them, Nick Saban – believed the injury career-threatening.

There was every reason to expect abject failure from Brees and the Saints. The Saints offensive line was a patched-together group. Deuce McAllister was at the end of his marvelous career. The Saints defense, so porous the year before, was being overhauled, piece by piece.

And here came Brees to Millsaps, at first throwing passes that lacked zip, fluttered and often missed their target. Nevertheless, Brees kept telling us his shoulder was 90 percent back to normal and that training camp would provide the final 10 percent.

And it did. Those 2006 Saints finished 10 and 6. Brees was spectacular. He has been consistently spectacular since. He is the best player in New Orleans Saints franchise history: Saint Drew.

But again, we must remember the quarterback always gets too much blame, but also too much credit.

Payton deserves so much of the credit for the Saints’ success of the past 15 years. He could not have done it with Brees, but it’s also highly doubtful Brees could have done it without him. They have been a terrific team, and Payton has surrounded Brees for most of that time with a remarkable supporting cast.

The Saints will retain the nucleus of a playoff-calibre team if Payton can find or develop a quarterback to replace the legend. Make no mistake, that’s a must. The quarterback always gets too much blame or too much credit, but you cannot succeed in the NFL without a really, really good one. Saint Drew was one of the best of all.