Move over, Peyton Manning, the NFL has a new career leader in passing yards. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees topped Manning’s mark of 71,940 yards Monday, accomplishing the feat in the latter’s hometown of New Orleans, during a nationally televised game against the Washington Redskins.
The game was paused in the second quarter after Brees completed a 62-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith to allow for recognition of the accomplishment, which came in the quarterback’s 18th NFL season. He actually began the evening third on the all-time list and passed Brett Favre (71,838 yards) on Monday, as well.
Brees was immediately enveloped by his teammates in a joyful hug, then he pointed to the home crowd while Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker took possession of the football used on the play. Brees’s next move was to the sideline, where his wife, children and Saints Coach Sean Payton awaited emotional embraces.
The game continued after with the Saints unsuccessfully attempted a two-point conversion — with Brees notably split out as a receiver, at least in theory, while backup quarterback Taysom Hill took the snap and tried to run into the end zone. ESPN, televising the “Monday Night Football” game, had Brees wearing a microphone during the game, and it played audio of Brees telling his young sons, “Hey, boys, how about that, huh? You can accomplish anything in life, if you’re willing to work for it.”
Anticipating that Brees might break the record against his team, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden told the Athletic’s Tarik El-Bashir before the game, “It’s a great accomplishment, man . . . You have got to have the utmost respect for what he’s been able to accomplish in his career. To have the game stop for a few minutes to congratulate him, I think it is well worth it.”
Whereas Manning barely was able to surpass Favre’s record in 2015, doing so in a final NFL season in which his play dropped sharply and he was benched for Brock Osweiler before returning late in the season to help the Broncos win the Super Bowl, Brees has a chance to put some distance between himself and second place. Even at 39 years old, the same age Manning was when he last threw a pass, Brees is still playing like one of the of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
Brees came into Week 5 not only leading the NFL in completion percentage, but with a mark higher than the 72.0 he posted last year, which set a single-season league record. Brees also led the NFL last year in completions (386) and yards per attempt (8.1), and while his passing yardage and touchdowns were down from previous seasons, that reflected in large part the fact that his Saints were unusually effective in 2017 on defense and at running the ball.
A second-round pick by the Chargers in 2001 after setting records at Purdue, Brees spent five seasons in San Diego as his career got off to a somewhat slow start. He had a breakout campaign in 2004, but by then the Chargers had drafted Philip Rivers with the fourth overall pick, and in the final game of the 2005 season, Brees suffered a major shoulder injury.
The Saints took a chance in free agency on Brees, who is also undersized for an NFL quarterback at a listed 6-0, and it paid off immediately. Partnered in 2006 with a first-year head coach in Payton, the pair took the previously underachieving franchise to new heights, while also helping bring joy to a New Orleans community struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.
“This is one of the great stories in NFL history — a guy who was told was told every reason why he would never be the guy,” Joe Tessitore, the “MNF” announcer, said before the game (via the Advocate). “From being a great high school player in Texas who chose not to stay home, to his troubles in San Diego, to his right shoulder not being able to pass a physical, to this day Drew Brees a guy that I marvel at.”
Over his 12 full seasons with the Saints, Brees quarterbacked the team to its first Super Bowl title and another appearance in the NFC championship game, and he has led the NFL in passing yardage seven times, including from 2014 to 2016. He has also led the league in completions six times, in completion percentage five times and in passing touchdowns four times.
Brees entered Monday 43 passing touchdowns short of Manning’s NFL record of 539 for a career, meaning that he is on pace to top that mark in 2019. However, he has some competition from 40-year-old Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw his 500th touchdown pass Thursday, while Favre is currently in second place at 508.
“Obviously, and I know Drew feels the same way, you never play for individual records of any sorts,” Manning said in June (via the New Orleans Times-Picayune). “I think touchdowns probably has a little more meaning to a quarterback, because it means that you got six points, and it means you were doing something good for your team. Yards, as you all know, cannot necessarily mean winning games. I think Drew’s had a couple of big yardage seasons and maybe they haven’t been winning as many games, so I think that can be a little bit misleading.”
Of the passing-yardage record, Manning said at the time, “He deserves it . . . He’s just been the ultimate pro, taking care of himself, being in great shape. Credit to him for playing as long as he has, at such a high level."
Brees came into Monday already in possession of several other NFL career passing records, including most completions (6,344), highest completion percentage (67.1), most passing yards per game (283.6), most consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons (12), most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (54) and most consecutive games with at least 20 completions (57). He also has the most 5,000-yard passing seasons, with five — all other NFL quarterbacks have combined for just four such campaigns — and he holds the league’s single season record for most completions, notching 471 in 2016.
Brees ended Monday’s game in style, getting lifted with two minutes left and the Saints up by 24 points. The only slight disappointment from the evening might have been that he didn’t quite get to 500 touchdown passes, throwing three against Washington to reach 499, but it was a magnificent outing in which he completed 26 of 29 passes, for an eye-popping 89.7 percentage, and racked up 363 yards.
“I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to play this game,” Brees said after the win, claiming that he wasn’t sure if it would “ever sink in” that he had topped some of the NFL’s all-time greats. “It’s truly been a dream come true.”
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