Drew Brees was in a New Orleans Saints meeting room the other day, reviewing practice film with his fellow quarterbacks when — there it is, he did it again.
For years, Brees has licked his fingers as the ball is snapped. He can justify it as a way to improve his grip on the ball, but the truth is, it’s just one of his things. But this time, Brees watched himself split out at wide receiver before a trick play. He wouldn’t be handling the ball, but just as backup quarterback Taysom Hill called for the snap, Brees licked his fingers.
“What was the point of that?” the Saints’ 39-year-old quarterback would remember thinking later. “I’m not taking the snap, I’m not about to throw a ball, I’m just standing out there. But it was the act of the play is about to begin, I’m clicking in, so I licked my fingers.”
It happens, same as Brett Favre compulsively unbuckling his chin strap after plays, and after 18 NFL seasons of muscle memory and strict adherence to a unique mental preparation routine, occasionally the wires inside Brees’s mind get crossed. Once during an offseason, he was at a table helping his children with their homework, the juices started flowing, and for some reason his hand went up, his tongue came out, and yep.
Brees thinks it’s weird, too.
“Why would I do that? I don’t know,” he said. “I just do.”
He has, just to point out the obvious, earned some relief on his quirks along with some credibility: Brees, who this season broke the record for most completed passes in a career, will enter Monday night’s game against Washington needing 201 yards to pass Favre and Peyton Manning and become the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history. He has, in a career that has lasted a generation while revealing stark overachievement and striking consistency, averaged roughly 284 passing yards over 253 games.
His 71,740 yards passing in the regular season — not including the 288 he twirled in a Super Bowl win nearly eight years ago that elevated Brees to a status among the game’s true greats — span the equivalent of more than 40 miles. Not bad for a passer who barely cracks 6 feet and whose right arm is, if measured against those of his peers for natural burst, among the league’s most unremarkable.
But he’s accurate and intelligent and meticulous and on the fringe of history. His secret isn’t the quirks, exactly, but his acceptance of them. He overpowers his physical shortcomings with brute mental strength: planning his days to the hour and sometimes the minute, taking nothing for granted, preparing and visualizing as if he were still the short-stack rookie out of Purdue who’d eventually build himself into a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Brees’s routine works because he believes it works, up to and including the way he carefully presses a foot on the sideline as each practice begins, holds a water bottle with both hands and delivers three squirts, and does 53 reps — no more, no less — of core exercises, because that’s the number of the next Super Bowl.
“Can you, tomorrow, go to brush your teeth and say: ‘Today I’m brushing my teeth for three minutes and 30 seconds, and I’m going to do it every day and try to match the pace every single day, brushing my teeth,’ ” said Zach Strief, a former Saints offensive lineman who retired after last season, his 12th alongside Brees. “Because normal people say it doesn’t matter. And to Drew, everything matters.”
Even at his high school outside Austin, Brees found comfort in numbers. There was something irrefutable about mathematics, and if someone said he was too short to play major college football, there were numbers that could dispel that suggestion.
He broke high school records for passing yards and touchdowns, and by the time he reached Purdue — his only other scholarship offer was to Kentucky — he had identified himself as a numbers guy. Formulas could be established or even exploited, and something just felt right when an equation fit.
“I just started seeing these numbers,” he would say much later, “and visualizing these numbers and having to hit these numbers, setting goals toward these numbers, and that just became a way to set a goal and benchmarks to achieve.”
And in his mind, in particular after he reached the NFL, hitting those benchmarks helped him justify that he deserved a certain thing: a starting job or a playoff appearance. He wears jersey No. 9, and for a long time Brees has preferred if certain things — workout reps, for instance, or his throws for the day — can be divided evenly by nine. He likes that Super Bowls are assigned numbers, not years, because that provides him another number to aim for, multiply, slice into derivatives. An NFL career was not a coincidence, he came to believe; it is the sum of infinitesimal decisions and actions, from the quality of his sleep to his food intake to his time management.
“I feel like I’m constantly counting,” he said, going on to describe various activities and the ways he manipulates goals to fit into them. “It has to hit a certain number. If I get that number in my head, then I’m like, ‘I’m not stopping until I get to this number.’ And that number on a daily basis might have a different significance.”
There were 24 hours in each day, no arguing that either, and so Brees began assigning tasks to certain days and hours. On Tuesday mornings he allows himself “quiet time”: two hours to answer emails, complete personal tasks, read a few pages of the 20 or so books he hopes to eventually get to. Wednesdays are about film study: specifically, first and second downs and the running game plan. Thursday is dedicated to third downs, and Fridays are devoted to red zone, short yardage and goal line plays. Saturdays, usually close to an off day for NFL players, have their unique responsibilities, too.
“I know where I’m going to be at a specific time,” Brees said. “I know what I’m going to be doing; I know what needs to be accomplished for me to feel confident and go out there and play at the highest level.”
No deviating, no adjusting, no need to ask — because you know why? Numbers, of course. Eleven Pro Bowls are why. Seven seasons leading the NFL in passing are why. Whether the habits have resulted in success or success has led to more habits, teammates cannot say. It’s best at this point to just go with it.
“In general, that kind of stuff is unhealthy,” said Strief, who goes on to outline a theory in which Brees is merely ritualistic and not compulsive because he expects good results of his actions rather than bad — the point being that these are the things Drew Brees’s teammates think about. “That routine for him provides him with almost a sense of comfort that this is all stuff; it’s all part of this everlasting pursuit of perfection for him.
“He’s still working to be considered a great quarterback. And that’s a mental drive that, I think, most normal people could never understand, or I can’t.”
A few seasons ago, Brees reported to the Saints’ practice facility and announced that he would no longer throw passes on Wednesdays.
Teammates expected the disruption to cause Brees to “lose his mind,” Strief would say later, but this was calculus and the quarterback had done his figuring. The arms of NFL quarterbacks, especially those reconstructed like Brees’s was before signing with the Saints in 2006, are like racing tires: only so much tread in their lifetimes. By then Brees was in his mid-30s and wanted to save some energy for Sundays. And so, yes, the routine changed and neither the Saints' facility nor Brees’s emotional state caved in on itself.
Brees, with his analytical mind, is less interested these days in overpowering the odds or doubters than his own body. His legs might be slower, his arm might feel weaker, but his brain is constantly scanning for other advantages. There are more hours dedicated to visualizing plays than there once were, more time spent memorizing scenarios and bracing for possibilities. There are two more numbers that drive him: one more Super Bowl championship, and 45. That’s the age that, if his mind can continue operating faster than his body can deteriorate, he believes he can reach as an NFL quarterback.
“I continue to fine-tune,” he said, and that means evaluating the routine he protects, and sometimes even subtracting or adding things that might help him. Many of those things are meant to go unseen, and the truth is many of his own teammates have no idea what Brees does from minute to minute, hour to hour.
A few years ago, the Saints gathered on a Saturday for a walk-through before a home game. These are usually laid-back affairs, with as much goofing off as football, and after the workout players retreated to the locker room to watch college football and socialize and then leave. Strief realized he forgot something in the weight room, so he walked in and saw Brees alone, studying the next day’s plays. Then he lined up behind his invisible offensive line, snapped the ball, and dropped back, going through his reads. He’d look left, checking off imaginary receivers, and when he looked right he shifted his body and feet for optimal balance. For a half-hour on a Saturday, when most everyone else had prepped enough and moved on, Brees kept at it: a new play, how the defense might react, and reactions and adjustments at game speed.
Strief stood and watched his quarterback, and the strength coach wandered over and told him Brees does this every Saturday. And that was the weird thing about it: It was no longer necessary for the quarterback, with all his accomplishments, to do all this. But the man himself, for all his restlessness, believed it was.
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