When a quarterback is likely to end his career with the most yards, touchdowns, completions and completion percentage ever, he has to be in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all time. However, simply because he has only one Super Bowl championship, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees rarely comes up in the discussion. The problem with this argument is that football is the ultimate team sport. No matter how great a quarterback is, he needs a supporting cast to win games.
It’s difficult to compare quarterbacks from different eras because of rules and game style differences. So instead of debating the greatest of all time, here is a comparison of Drew Brees with the greatest quarterbacks of this generation.
While there are many good quarterbacks in the NFL right now, as there have been throughout Drew Brees’ career, only a certain few are in the same tier as the New Orleans quarterback. Even guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, who have two Super Bowl rings each, are not in the same conversation as Brees.
The top tier of quarterbacks throughout Brees’ career, and his main competition for greatest quarterback of this generation is made up of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. (Favre counts because he had about eight years in his prime after Brees was drafted).
In the first part of this discussion, the quarterbacks were compared in terms of regular season performance and intangibles. Now, let’s look at playoff performance and team success/supporting cast.
Many people use playoff and Super Bowl wins to determine the greatness of quarterbacks. However, it makes more sense to judge quarterbacks based on their actual level of play, both stats and clutch play. Because football is the ultimate team sport, a quarterback can play incredibly well and still lose a game (or vice versa). Looking at how the players actually performed in playoff games will give a better understanding of how the players compare to each other.
When comparing playoff stats, straight volume is difficult to compare because quarterbacks will have played different numbers of postseason games. The best way to judge them is by looking at per game and per attempt stats. Yards wise, Drew Brees blows the others out of the water, with 323 yards per playoff game; the next highest is Peyton Manning at 270 yards per game in the postseason. In addition, while this is partly because Brees throws the ball more than the others, it is not solely because of that. Out of all five, the Saints quarterback has a leading 7.8 yards per attempt, with Rodgers second at 7.5 Y/A. So even though he throws more than the others, Brees is extremely efficient with his passes.
Yards show how well a quarterback played, but they need to be taken in context with touchdowns and interceptions. The best way to compare these stats is to look at the percentage of total attempts that were touchdowns/interceptions. Brees and Rodgers are clearly the top two at protecting the ball in the playoffs; they both have a 1.7% interception percentage. On the other hand, Brady is close at 2.1% while Peyton and Brett Favre threw interceptions on 2.4% and 3.8% of their postseason throws respectively. Touchdowns wise, Brees ranks fourth at 5.4% of his passes going for scores behind Rodgers (6.1%), Manning (5.7%) and Brady (5.5%). When looking at TD: INT ratio, Rodgers is the highest at 3.6 touchdowns per pick, while Brees is the only other QB with a ratio over 3:1.
The final two major stats are completion percentage and passer rating. For the playoffs, Brees leads this group in both of these categories. His 65.9% completion percentage is just higher than Peyton’s 65.3% and his 100.7 passer rating is the only one that hits triple digits (Rodgers comes closest at 99.4). Favre comes in last in both categories.
Playoff stats tell a great part of how quarterbacks, but looking at clutch moments is important as well. Tom Brady has by far the most game-winning drives in NFL history with 11. He has played by far the most playoff games of the bunch, but still almost has one game-winning drive for every three games. The next highest out of this group of players is Brees, who has played the fewest playoff games, with three. Rodgers, Favre and Manning each have two career playoff game-winning drives.
Where does Brees stand? Even though Brees doesn’t have as many playoff appearances as the others, but he has been lights when he has played. Brees is on top of many of the per-game lists for playoff stats; whenever he’s not on top, he seems to be in second. Brees, Rodgers and Brady are all neck and neck in this area; Brees has a slight edge because he is top two in essentially every significant playoff category.
For a team to win in football, every single player has to contribute. Because of that, it is sometimes unfair to judge quarterbacks based on the success of their team. Even though quarterbacks have the biggest impact compared to other positions, they still do not have enough to win games by themselves. Nevertheless, looking at team success is still important.
The most obvious determination for team success is Super Bowl championships and appearances. Tom Brady blows all the others away in this area, with eight Super Bowl appearances and five championships (with four Super Bowl MVPs). Peyton Manning has four appearances and two championships. The other three all have one ring each; Favre appeared in the Super Bowl twice, while Brees and Rodgers have each only gone once. Each of the four has one Super Bowl MVP to his name.
Brady blows the others out of the water in this area, but a large part of that is because of his supporting cast. His head coach, Bill Belichick is far and away the best coach any of these quarterbacks have ever had. He will go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time, both because of his defensive scheming ability and standard of discipline.
The offense is one side of the ball, but defense is just as important. When looking at these quarterbacks defenses throughout their career, it is obvious that Brady has had the most support. In his 17 seasons of quarterbacking the New England Patriots, he has had a defense outside the top 10 – in terms of points allowed – a grand total of three times (with the lowest being 17). On the other hand, Brees has only had a defense in the top 10 three times in his career – and a bottom five defense four times. Rodgers has only had a top 10 defense in the league twice, but never a bottom five defense. Favre and Manning both had a top ten defense seven times in their careers.
Offensively, Brees is the only quarterback of the bunch that had never played with a Pro-Bowl receiver until last season. Brady had two first-team All-Pros in Randy Moss (for two seasons) and Wes Welker (for six). Peyton for a while had two of the best ever in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as well as other All-Pros like Welker and Demaryius Thomas. Aaron Rodgers has had Pro-Bowlers such as Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and even Randall Cobb. Favre played with Driver, Sterling Sharpe and Antonio Freeman. Brees’ first star receiver came in 2017 when youngster Michael Thomas earned a Pro-Bowl nod after a breakout season. He did have All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham for a few years, but Graham has not produced nearly as well since leaving New Orleans with two star quarterbacks in Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
Where does Brees stand? Brees is nowhere near Brady in terms of team success, but is in the ballpark of the other quarterbacks. Considering that he has had by far the worst defensive help, and had never played with a Pro-Bowl receiver until 2017 at the age of 38, it is apparent that Brees is the one who even gives his team a chance to win games. It is difficult to know how much quarterbacks would have accomplished if placed in different situations. However, Brees certainly would have had a better chance to win multiple championships if he had a better supporting cast.
So is Brees the Greatest of his generation?
Drew Brees is definitely in the conversation with these other greats. He either leads or will soon lead in most important career passing stats. In addition, he performs incredibly well in the playoffs, arguably the best overall compared to the rest of the quarterbacks. But due to having a relatively weak supporting cast, especially on the defensive side of the ball, Brees has not had as many playoff appearances or wins as the others.
One can only imagine how many championships Drew Brees would have won if he had better teammates. That said, Drew Brees has a chance to add another ring to his resume this season. If he can do that and overcome teams that are all-around better than the Saints, his argument will become even stronger.
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