It’s a different sort of season for Drew Brees. The passing yards are not piling up as rapidly. The fate of the New Orleans Saints does not depend entirely on his right arm. He actually has help.
It’s a nice feeling.
“I just do my job,” he said. “When I’m asked to [throw], I’m going to be as efficient as I possibly can. Completions are good. Convert third downs. Score touchdowns. Take care of the football. That’s my job. That’s always the quarterback’s job.”
Brees is 38, and his place as one of the most prolific passers in NFL history is secure. He has five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history. No other quarterback has more than one.
Therein lies the problem. Far too often, the Saints have been far too reliant on Brees’s passing. They haven’t been able to run the ball, and they haven’t been able to play defense, and the wins have not come as frequently as they did early in the New Orleans tenure of Brees and Coach Sean Payton. The Saints posted 7-9 records in each of the past three seasons.
Things are different this season. Brees is throwing the ball well but not as often. The defense and running game have improved greatly, and the Saints will take a 7-2 record and a seven-game winning streak into Sunday’s game at home against the Washington Redskins. The Saints are very much in the mix to be the NFC’S representative in the Super Bowl.
It’s not that Brees is playing poorly. He is tied with Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz as the league’s third-rated passer, behind only Kansas City’s Alex Smith and New England’s Tom Brady. He is completing an NFL-best 71.7 percent of his passes. He has 13 touchdown passes to go with only four interceptions, and he’s on pace to throw for 4,263 yards this season.
But that would be Brees’s fewest passing yards in a season since 2005, when he was with the San Diego Chargers. He is on pace to have 533 passing attempts this season, which would be his fewest since 2009. That’s the season the Saints won the Super Bowl. They haven’t been back to even the NFC title game since then.
These Saints are different, though. They are third in the NFL in rushing. They’re eighth in total defense and tied for fifth in scoring defense. They are not merely The Drew Brees Show, directed by Payton.
“I like the way our defense is playing,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said after Sunday’s 47-10 triumph at Buffalo. “I like our defensive mentality. I like the way we take practice. I like the way we take the field. Whatever gets us to this mental edge, that’s what we need.”
The Saints’ tailback tandem of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara is proving to be extremely effective. They each topped 100 rushing yards against the Bills, a game in which the Saints ran for 298 yards and a team-record six touchdowns.
“They’re both so versatile,” Brees said. “Really, there’s not an element of this offense that you would say one is better suited than the other. They both can do it all, really. It’s unique to have two guys like that. So, regardless of the situation, we can plug and play. What’s fun is to watch one guy having success and the next guy comes in and he has success, and they’re both feeding off one another. They’re both competing. And yet at the end of the day, they’re such a tight-knit group, that running back room, and they both understand that they’re going to get their opportunities to help us succeed.”
The Saints’ dominant performance in Buffalo included a 94-yard touchdown drive without a passing attempt. Ingram and Kamara did all the work until Brees covered the final seven yards with a scramble off what was supposed to be a passing play. Brees performed a reluctant, old-man-style “dash” to the corner of the end zone after he could find no receiver open and left tackle Terron Armstead bulldozed a defender to clear an open path.
“We’re always waiting for the play call to come in,” Brees said. “We never really had any third-down situations on that drive. We kept getting first downs on first or second down. You’re waiting for them to maybe mix in a shot or mix in something. We get down inside the 10-yard line, and he calls a pass play. It’s funny because, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘How mad are these running backs going to be? We’ve run the ball all the way down the field, and then we’re going to throw a touchdown to cap it off.’ I tried. I [waited] around as long as I could to try to find somebody.”
The Saints are reinvigorated, and it has come just when the era of Brees and Payton perhaps had begun to feel a bit tired. It also has come at a time of career uncertainty for Brees. His contract expires after this season, leaving him eligible for unrestricted free agency. A clause in his deal reportedly prohibits the Saints from franchise-tagging him. He has vowed not to leave.
But that is a discussion for later. For now, it’s all about the Saints trying to get back to the sport’s biggest stage.
“Whenever you taste success and you’re able to do it time and again, it builds a level of confidence and belief in the process and the system and what we’re building,” Brees said. “And I think that obviously we went out and made some additions through free agency and made some additions with our rookie draft class, guys that have contributed quite a bit. Add all that stuff together and maybe catching some breaks along the way that we haven’t caught in a long time — a long time — and it’s resulting in wins.”
Read more on the NFL: