Is Drew Brees Holding New Orleans Back?
Drew Brees still looks like Drew Brees - the same manic but purposeful, darting feet, and that re-assuring presence in the pocket, looking taller than his height.
But something has quietly gone very wrong. Age has taken hold and once simple moments have now become impossible and what used to be routine is now a platform for catastrophes.
The audience started to gasp back in week one. The Saints won that game against the Bucs, but Brees was awful, throwing for just 160 yards, and most of those yards coming after the catch. That day he looked misplaced - bouncing short passes and unable to make throws in tight windows. He made one play to seal it - a 46-yarder to Jared Cook in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to two touchdowns - but was carried by his defence.
Things have gotten better. Against Las Vegas, the same issues repeated themselves, but Brees was more efficient against Green Bay and Detroit, and not as locked in the mode of fragile game manager. The deep balls were rarely there, but in the intermediate game Brees looked like himself again.
In the 30-27 win over the Chargers on Monday night, another chapter in the oversized book of primetime Chargers collapses, both worlds of Brees were on offer. In the first half he was mostly dreadful, with 93yards and a handful of awful throws, including a lamentable sailed pick. The most jarring Brees moments this season have been the abrupt, failed short passes - he had another of these against the Chargers, a screen pass hitting the ground like a second basemen with the yips throwing one into the dirt.
But starting with the touchdown drive to end the first half, Brees found his way again. From that drive through the end of the game, Brees was just Brees, with more zip on his passes, working the middle of the field and the short-intermediate game, exercising total control over the offence. After five of the Saints' first six drives ended without points, five of the last seven brought scores.
On the other side, Justin Herbert reinforced, for good and bad, everything that Brees isn't. Herbert's athleticism is powerful, with pace to go with his 6'6" frame and an archetypal cannon arm. To see him sprint out of a collapsing pocket and hit Keenan Allen on the run for a laser touchdown in the first quarter put into light everything Brees can’t do anymore.
While Herbert unleashed bombs to Allen, Mike Williams and Jalen Guyton, Brees was forced to methodically work his way slowly down the field. At the same time, though, when he wasn't hitting bombs, Herbert occasionally looked lost and threw the ball up for grabs. Even in his lessened state, at the end of the game, Brees was always the better and safer bet. Chargers kicker Mike Badgley, continuing a rich Chargers kicker tradition, missed the game-winning field goal and Brees and the defence did the rest.
The game was an apt summary of where the Saints stand.
Brees is no longer good enough to carry New Orleans, but he’s not diminished enough to hold them back. The occasional big play will still be there from Brees – like the pretty, lofted, deep, tight rainbow touchdown pass to Jared Cook to tie the game in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, Brees will depend on his spectacular playmakers to do spectacular things – like Alvin Kamara’s deep sideline catch at the death. He’s still good enough to give them a chance, but not good enough to always put it on a platter.
Brees’s context is so good that his field will always have a downhill slope.
The offensive line is still magnificent and Kamara is terrifying. Michael Thomas might be the best receiver in the game, and much of Brees’s uninspiring play is tied to Thomas’s absence. Emmanuel Sanders is the swing-piece. For years, the Saints have lacked the secondary receiver to take the load off Thomas, and Sanders seemed to finally fill that gap. His start to the season was poor, but he’s now found his way, and with 12 receptions and 122 yards against the Chargers he was the decisive skill position player on the field.
The defence has seemed uneven, but still ranks 6th in DVOA. The secondary has been prone to gaffes, like the breakdown that led to Mike Williams’s walk-in touchdown on Monday night, but is still loaded with talent and has plenty of scope for improvement – particularly in the secondary where Marshon Lattimore has been injured or below standard, and Janoris Jenkins is still to come back.
For all of the clamouring around Brees, the Saints have escaped to 3-2, with a share of the division lead, heading into their bye to get healthy. They should only get better from here– Brees may not, but after so many years carrying New Orleans, the Saints are well placed to repay the favour.
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