New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees made his long-expected retirement announcement Sunday. His farewell ends a memorable NFL career in which he became one of the most prolific passers in league history and helped to transform the once-downtrodden Saints into Super Bowl champions in a dramatic franchise rebirth after the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Brees, 42, walks away from the NFL as the career leader in passing yards and completions and ranks second in career touchdown passes and completion percentage. A certain first-ballot choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame following the required five-year wait, Brees made his announcement in a written statement posted to social media with a video in which his children proclaimed that he “is finally going to retire so he can spend more time with us,” followed by an enthusiastic cheer.
“After 20 years as a player in the NFL and 15 years as a Saint, it is time I retire from the game of football,” Brees said on Instagram. “Each day, I poured my heart [and] soul into being your Quarterback. Til the very end, I exhausted myself to give everything I had to the Saints organization, my team, and the great city of New Orleans. We shared some amazing moments together, many of which are emblazoned in our hearts and minds and will forever be a part of us. You have molded me, strengthened me, inspired me, and given me a lifetime of memories. My goal for the last 15 years was striving to give to you everything you had given to me and more.
“I am only retiring from playing football, I am not retiring from New Orleans. This is not goodbye, rather a new beginning. Now my real life‘s work begins!”
Brees’s retirement had been widely expected since the Saints were eliminated from the divisional round of the NFC playoffs by the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the announcement came three days before the official opening of the NFL’s free agent market. It also came on the 15-year anniversary of Brees joining the Saints after he left the San Diego Chargers as a player considered damaged goods by some as he recovered from a shoulder injury.
But after the Miami Dolphins passed over Brees in free agency and instead traded for Daunte Culpepper — an epic free agency blunder that sent their coach, Nick Saban, back to college to begin accumulating national championships at Alabama — Brees joined Coach Sean Payton in New Orleans and turned the Saints into perennial contenders.
“When I was hired by the Saints as head coach in 2006, the very first goal was to establish a functional and winning culture,” Payton said in a written statement. “In doing so, it was vital to know what we were looking for in a player. … We also found a player with a burning desire to win.”
The franchise’s future in New Orleans after Katrina was uncertain after the Saints spent a nomadic 2005 season playing home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge after a “home” opener against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J. But the team made a glorious and victorious return to the Superdome in September 2006, reached the NFC championship game that season and then won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season.
“You came to us at our lowest point,” the Saints said in a written statement posted to social media. “You led us to our highest. You represented our state, city, and team with incredible professionalism, class, and toughness. We are forever grateful for the immeasurable impact you and your family had on this city.”
With Payton dialing up the plays and Brees making them work, the Saints made nine playoff appearances and won seven division titles in a span of 15 seasons.
“Throughout his career, his consistency and dedication to excellence were unparalleled,” Payton said. “In a very short period of time, he would help lead a region to recovery and a team to a Super Bowl Championship. He was a magnificent leader both on and off the field. His attention to detail and competitive spirit were infectious. For all of us that have had the chance to coach him, it has been our privilege, we are better for it. I am forever grateful for what he has done for our team, our community and for me personally.”
Brees finishes his career with 80,358 passing yards and 571 touchdown passes. He was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection. Of the dozen 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, Brees has five of them. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Patrick Mahomes, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford have one each.
“Over and above his outstanding performance, Drew came to represent the resolve, passion and drive that resonates not only with Saints fans and football fans, but our entire community,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said in a written statement. “He played the game and played the position at its highest level, but just as important, represented our organization and region in the highest fashion. We will forever be grateful to him for what he brought to our club and the entire Gulf South community, showing everybody what can be accomplished by putting our sleeves up and showing leadership, determination and hard work.”
A Super Bowl return eluded Brees, Payton and the Saints as they suffered postseason heartbreaks in recent years. Brees dealt with injuries and scrutiny over whether he’d lost the ability to throw downfield passes with the necessary zip. He missed four games during the 2020 regular season because of fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.
He returned to the lineup, but the Saints bowed out of the playoffs with a 30-20 defeat Jan. 17 to Brady and the Buccaneers. Brees soaked up his final on-field moments as an NFL player, glancing back at the Superdome scene as he exited the field after the game. He later returned to the field with his family and shared a moment with Brady. Now, while Brady plays on, Brees is expected to head to the broadcast booth and the Saints perhaps will turn to all-purpose standout Taysom Hill as a full-time quarterback.
“Congrats my friend on an incredible career,” Brady wrote Sunday on Twitter. “Thank you for the inspiration and dedication on and off the field! Look forward to seeing what’s next.”