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If Drew Brees is saying goodbye to the NFL, he exits with his usual grace and dignity

Drew Brees exits after perhaps his final game in the NFL, Sunday's playoff loss to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. (Butch Dill/AP)

On the way to the locker room, Drew Brees stopped jogging Sunday night. He may have wanted to run away, to submit to the disappointment, but his grace wouldn’t allow it. Through dejection, Brees had to muster appreciation. He had to give nostalgia a nod.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback slowed to a walk, took off his helmet and pointed at the tiny, pandemic-dictated Superdome crowd. He blew four kisses — one, two, pause, three, four — before reaching the tunnel. He looked back a final time, to his football home for 15 of his 20 NFL seasons, to a place he delivered its only championship. And then he disappeared, probably into retirement.

If this is truly the end, it was a crummy farewell. In sports, goodbyes often are inadequate and somber. Most competitors, especially record-setting, certain Hall of Famers such as Brees, can’t quit until the game suffocates their greatness. It must be made clear that it’s over. Brees mastered the sport, threw for 80,358 yards and won like no Saints quarterback had ever won. But the game always knew it would outlast him.

On Sunday, Brees looked like a 42-year-old athlete ready to transition to the football afterlife. During the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 30-20 victory over the Saints, Brees played the worst playoff game of his career. Tom Brady, his older legendary counterpart, wasn’t spectacular, either, but Brady threw two touchdown passes and didn’t commit a turnover, in careful management of a game that the defenses dominated. Brees turned in a performance he wishes he could take back: just 134 passing yards, just 3.9 yards per attempt and three killer interceptions.

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Brees hadn’t had a three-interception game in five years. He hadn’t thrown more than two picks in any of 17 previous playoff starts. He had never thrown for fewer than 197 yards in a postseason game, and he had finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes just one other time. This is a quarterback who had averaged 307.8 yards per game in his playoff career, with a TD-to-INT ratio of 36 to 12. He once surpassed 400 yards in three straight playoff games. Even in his twilight years, Brees has stayed between efficient and explosive when the games matter most.

This performance was uncharacteristic. This ending was cruel. But for the Saints, who have been chasing one more Super Bowl in the Brees-Sean Payton era for the past four seasons, the letdown was familiar. Since 2017, New Orleans has been the most consistent team in the NFC, and for a majority of the time, it has been the best. The reward has been one heartbreaking January after another.

Since 2017, the Saints boast a 49-15 record and four straight NFC South titles. They went 12-4 this season and posted 13-3 records the two years prior. They have developed ideal balance and play exquisite complementary football. Payton has adjusted the roster and revised his philosophy to get the most out of Brees’s latter years, masking how age has diminished his arm strength and accentuating his accuracy and decision-making.

Payton and Brees have done a remarkable job of reimagining one of the great coach-quarterback partnerships in NFL history. The Saints have done championship-worthy work, and perhaps they would have captured another Lombardi Trophy if not for bad timing, bad luck — and bad officiating.

The mind always goes back to the missed pass interference call against Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC championship game after the 2018 season. It stings just as much today. It might hurt more because that’s as close as Brees came to another title.

“We’ll probably never get over it,” Payton predicted two years ago.

But the recent postseason despair isn’t limited to one game. Twice, the Saints saw the Minnesota Vikings end their season in heartbreaking fashion. And now there is Sunday’s defeat to the division rival Buccaneers, a team the Saints handled rather easily in two regular season games. The Bucs have gone from bad to Brady in a year, and they’re one victory from the Super Bowl. The Saints have been grinding to get back to the big stage, doing very little wrong, learning from every setback, growing hungrier. But they kept falling short of the Super Bowl.

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They were left to shake their heads over four turnovers, three of which involved Brees.

“There were a couple that I probably shouldn’t have thrown, Brees said. “At the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to.”

Like any great quarterback, Brees has made a career out of overcoming mistakes. He always responds impressively. But he doesn’t seem to have a next play to focus his attention on. The memory of this sour day will have to dissipate on its own.

When asked whether he thinks Brees will retire, Payton replied, “I think that’s probably for another press conference.”

One brutal game won’t come close to ruining all the glory. Whenever Brees makes his official decision, whatever he decides, he can be at peace about his career. If he wants to eke out another season, that would be an understandable competitive response. If he was blowing goodbye kisses, well, it’s probably for the best. He’s not just one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. He’s one of the best stories in NFL history, a smallish, 6-foot QB who did much to shatter the perception that you had to be at least 6-3 to be trusted as a franchise signal caller. The undersized star quarterbacks who have come after him — Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, in particular — will be a part of his legacy.

Did he stay a year too long? It doesn’t matter. He competed. He went for it. That’s all he wanted — another chance — even if it broke his spirit Sunday night.

“I would never regret it,” Brees said of coming back for a 20th season that included breaking 11 ribs and missing four games. “Never. No complaints. No regrets. I’ve always tried to play this game with great respect and a great reverence for it, and I appreciate all that this game has given to me. There are obviously so many incredible memories, so many incredible relationships that have come as a result of playing in this game, and you found out so much about yourself, and you fight through so much when you play this game.

“And I would say this season I probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to in any other season in my career, from injury to all the covid stuff to just crazy circumstances, and it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”

If this is truly the end, Brees didn’t get a proper goodbye, not after throwing for a measly 134 yards, not after a loss at home in a mostly empty stadium. He deserved better. At just about any other time, he would’ve gotten better.

Still, he exited with dignity. There are so many things about sports that even a talent as supreme as Brees cannot control. His grace, unparalleled, is not among them.