What is the legacy of New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees? Take your pick

METAIRIE, La. — Any athlete would truly love to make a mark on his or her sport, leave a legacy that outlasts their playing days.

With New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, you can take your pick of accomplishments.

He retired on Sunday at the age of 42 as the most prolific passer in NFL history, throwing for a league-record 80,358 yards in 20 seasons.

Brees helped uplift New Orleans on and off the field after Hurricane Katrina when he arrived along with coach Sean Payton in 2006. He led the Saints to their first and only Super Bowl victory three years later and led them to the playoffs nine times in 15 years — rivaling former Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White as the best free-agent signing in league history.

Brees is one of the all-time underdog stories in all of sports, barely recruited out of high school at just 6 feet and overcoming a devastating shoulder injury early in his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers.

He has been a pioneer for other short quarterbacks — a stigma squashed by Brees and Russell Wilson winning Super Bowls and Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray being drafted No. 1 overall.

“Drew’s been a great player and great for the game,” said former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who has continued to call New Orleans home since his playing days. “As I like to say, he checks all the boxes as a Hall of Fame quarterback and the way his career has gone, and he’s a good citizen.

“Luckily for our city and our part of the country, he came to New Orleans.”

Manning said he recently was reminded it took the Saints’ franchise 34 years before they won their first playoff game in 2000 — and he laughed at the notion the Superdome was “cursed” because it had been built on top of a former cemetery.

“Now after the last 15 years, you can definitely say the curse was lifted,” Manning said. “But I think having a great coach and a lot of damn good players had a lot to do with lifting that curse.”

Another former Saints quarterback, Bobby Hebert, grew up in Southern Louisiana and said he was 8 or 9 years old when he started getting into football and watching the fledgling Saints franchise.

“Just think about it now, if you had [grown up] in the last 15 years. So now you’re an adult in the working world and you don’t know nothing but a winning team,” said Hebert, who has been an analyst for WWL Radio in New Orleans throughout Brees’ tenure.

“He is truly a living legend and just a godsend to New Orleans, considering you never know how things would have worked out. I think Sean Payton’s a great coach, but what if Drew Brees goes to the Dolphins instead [as a free agent in 2006]?”

Wilson, the 5-11 quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, was one of those young kids who grew up idolizing Brees and modeling his game after him. Wilson often wore a Saints cap when he was in college.

“Drew means the world to me. I respect the game and he does it better than anybody else,” Wilson said during the January 2020 Pro Bowl broadcast on ESPN after he decided to give up his starting role and let Brees take his place for the game.

“He’s probably my favorite player to ever play the game,” Wilson said last year. “I think about his legacy, what he’s meant to the game. He’s allowed me to … he’s kind of helped open up the door for me to play as a shorter quarterback. There’s been some guys before him that I’m sure he’d acknowledge, as well, the Doug Fluties of the world and others, Steve Youngs and different players.

“I think about Drew and his ability to make plays. When he’s in the game, just a spectacular football player. One of the best to ever step on the field.”

It’s not just the short guys who admire the future Hall of Famer.

Last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Joe Burrow, also said he was a Saints fan growing up in Ohio because he “idolized” Brees. Burrow got the chance to study Brees at LSU when the Tigers implemented much of the Saints’ offense in 2019, leading to Burrow’s record-setting Heisman Trophy run and national championship win.

Brees elicits the same level of respect from those who came before him, too.

“Drew [Brees] means the world to me. I respect the game, and he does it better than anybody else,” Russell Wilson said. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

“What he’s meant to that organization, first of all, I don’t know if you can put a price on it,” Gulf South native Brett Favre said recently on his SiriusXM Radio show. “And what he’s meant to the league is even more valuable.”

Favre was practically gushing when he had Brees as a guest on his show last year after Brees set yet another NFL record by completing 29 of 30 passes on Monday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts — at the age of 40.

“I marvel at what he’s been able to do,” said Favre, who famously wrestled with the decision of when to retire.

And when Brees set the NFL record for career TD passes in 2019, contemporaries from Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady to Detroit’s Adrian Peterson to Houston’s J.J. Watt responded with tweets, calling him things like an “absolute legend.”

Brees has furthered his legend as an overachiever by showing an ability to adapt in his later years when his arm strength started to diminish.

From 2008-16, Brees threw for at least 5,000 yards five different times. No other quarterback has done it more than once. Then from 2017-19, at the ages of 38-40, Brees posted the three highest single-season completion percentages in NFL history.

His passer ratings and interception ratios were also among the best of his career over his final four seasons, with the Saints winning four straight NFC South titles over that span. He wound up ranking among the NFL’s top 10 passers in ESPN’s Total QBR metric in all 15 seasons since it was created in 2006.

Brees’ accuracy and ability to see the field were rivaled only by his work ethic and competitiveness. He didn’t miss a game after suffering the 360-degree labrum tear and rotator-cuff damage at the end of the 2005 season — which renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews called the most remarkable recovery of any athlete he has ever treated. This season, Brees came back after missing four games with a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs.

“I think [not being highly recruited out of high school] put a little chip on his shoulder,” Manning said. “Then he probably wasn’t drafted where he wanted to be drafted. Then the San Diego experience, the Miami experience.

“The rest is history.”

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