The most dangerous mind in the NFL: How Drew Brees continues to defy the odds
The prolific Saints QB shows no signs of slowing down entering his 17th NFL season
METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees isn't supposed to be doing what he's doing. He just isn't.
At barely 6-feet tall -- some of his New Orleans Saints teammates actually insist he's that tall when he's wearing shoes -- with a surgically repaired throwing shoulder in an arm that isn't going to knock receivers over, Brees hardly looks like the prototypical NFL quarterback. He can barely see over the line sometimes, and many times he is forced to crane his neck for any little window to see the defense.
"He looks out underneath his facemask," Saints running back Mark Ingram said. "That's so he can see."
The primary reason it all works, though, has nothing to do with the physical tools that you or I can see. It has to do with what you can't.
It's all inside his head.
Peyton Manning used to be the standard-bearer for quarterback smarts. He used to own the most-dangerous weapon in all of football: His mind.
Brees has now taken that over. His mind is the greatest weapon in football.
Doesn't it have to be, considering his physical stature?
In an era with big, strong-armed passers, guys who stand tall in the pocket, Brees has bucked the trend, becoming one of the greatest passers in NFL history in large part because of his ability to win with his head.
"Everybody has limitations, and everybody knows what their strengths are," Brees said last week during a break in training camp. "I feel like my preparation and knowing as much as I can about playing the concepts, the personnel and defense is what is going to allow me to be successful. Having a plan and knowing how to execute that plan is what equates to success. I have to rely on that. That has to be my greatest strength. What I may lack in some areas, that has to make up for it."
Brees has a sixth sense for finding the open receiver.
"Take away a sense, and the other senses have to be heightened," he said. "It's like that. I know where guys are going to be. I know where my outlet is. I develop trust and confidence in my guys that even if certain things are taken away, I have that ability to know where they are gong to be and make it work."
If the 38-year-old Brees plays three more seasons, he will almost certainly be the NFL all-time leader in yards, touchdown passes and attempts. He needs 5,830 yards to pass Peyton Manning atop the yards list. Considering Brees has five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history, that should happen next year.
Manning also is tops in touchdown passes with 539, while Brees has 465. If he plays three more seasons, he will need to average 25 a season to get there. Brett Favre has 1,411 more pass attempts than Brees, so that will take three full seasons to break. Brees is also first all-time in completion percentage at 66.6-percent, and seventh in passer rating at 96.3.
He also has the one Super Bowl victory to go with the numbers to help validate all those numbers -- keeping him away from the vultures that would prey on him just being a stats guy.
When the numbers were mentioned to Brees, he almost had an aw-shucks reaction to being on the verge of becoming the best passer of all time -- at least in terms of raw data.
"It's not my No. 1 priority, but when you look back on a career it's significant," he said. "I remember my rookie year in San Diego. My first preseason game was at Miami. Walking into Joe Robbie Stadium, I remember looking up and there was Dan Marino in the ring of honor. It listed all his stats. He had 400-plus touchdowns and 60,000 yards (61,361). I remember thinking how could you ever get close to that number in a career. All that stuff was untouchable. It wasn't even in my mind. It was my first preseason game. I was just hoping to make it out of that game without the coaches yelling at me. To think I am going into my 17th season and within striking distance, I don't know."
He stops for a second.
"I try not to reflect too much, but rather focus on what's in front of me," he said. "I just feel blessed to play the game as long as I have."
The drive to be great
Coming out of Purdue, there were questions about his size and his arm strength. Yet the San Diego Chargers took him in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. After playing little as a rookie, he started 58 games in four seasons, flashing his passing acumen in his final two seasons. But in the season finale in 2005, Brees suffered a torn labrum in his right, throwing arm.
Some speculated he might never be the same.
They were right. He got better. Much better.
The Saints signed him as a free agent when the Chargers made Philip Rivers their franchise quarterback. The Saints took a chance even as Brees was coming back from the injury.
"I hate when people try and say he's a system quarterback. He is the system." -- Zach Strief on Drew Brees
In 12 seasons, all he's done is win a Super Bowl for the city and become the face of the franchise and a darling of New Orleans fans. The determination to come back from that injury -- his arm actually got stronger -- shouldn't come as a surprise now.
His drive and competitiveness are legendary. Teammates and coaches marvel at it.
"He has a level of mental intensity that normal guys can't match," Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. "Most people can't maintain that competitive drive on a day-to-day basis, but that's what makes him great."
That drive shows up everywhere. Whether it's on the practice field, the post-practice quarterback competitions, the locker-room ping-pong games or playing darts with his wife, Brees hates to lose.
"I go right for that bulls-eye," he said.
The Saints put a ping-pong table in their locker room last year. That led to friendly games. Brees hadn't played the game in a while, so Strief beat him four straight times.
"He'd throw the paddle down and walk away," Strief said. "He hated it."
So what did Brees do?
He practiced and worked to beat Strief, who now says he hasn't defeated Brees in their last eight or nine games. Isn't there something a little odd in Brees taking time out from work to win a seemingly meaningless ping-pong game? It could be, but that's him.
"Yes, I practiced, but more than that I tried to figure out why he was beating me," Brees said. "There was something he was doing that I was not able to combat. The spin on his serve was messing me up. I came up with a technique for that. If I didn't find a way to answer that, he was going to beat my butt and I can't stand it."
When Brees puts his mind to something, he's tough to beat. He uses the same kind of focus to adapt and succeed on the football field.
"I visualized what I had to do," he said. "I read something where this guy was a Vietnam POW. And the way he got through being imprisoned that whole time was to visualize playing on his home golf course. He had never broken 92 on that golf course. He just sat there and visually played it. That's how he made it through the day. Sure enough, after being released, he goes back home and shoots 82. He visualized it. He saw it. I think that's what separates some of the great athletes from others. They put themselves in situations and they visualize what they are going to do to have success. They visualize the shot, the throw, the catch, how the defense is going to react. Then when you go out and do it, it's as if it already happened. I do that on the football field, but I also did it thinking about beating him (Strief)."
That mind has to be sharp, as does the attention to detail. Since he's short, Brees has a tough time seeing over the line. Watch any Saints game and you will see him tilting his head back to get a better look at what's in front of him. It's become a tic of his on some plays when he doesn't even need to do so.
The taller quarterbacks can see over the line. Brees has to see through windows -- or not at all. That's right. He said he throws some of his passes blindly, just because he knows where the receivers are going to be
"He's thrown 100s of passes where he didn't see the receiver," Strief said. "That's because of his attention to detail. Repping the plays over and over again, plus all the studying he does."
"The bottom line, I am 6-feet tall and everybody in front of me is 6-4," Brees said. "It's impossible to see over those guys. You have to create throwing windows. There is stuff where it gets wide open in front of me and I will jump. I will drop back, jump, just to confirm what I think is there, and the second my foot hits the ground, I stride and I am throwing, even if I know what's there. I wonder why even jumped."
Practice makes perfect
Sitting inside the Saints practice facility, sipping a smoothie made especially for him, Brees used the garage doors on the opposite side of the structure to explain his technique for seeing down field. There were three big garage doors on the wall opposite us, one on each end and one in the middle.
"If we opened up all the garage doors, they could be similar to throwing lanes and everything between them (the walls) is linemen and stuff you can't see," Brees said. "If you drive a car behind it, and I can gauge the speed of it, I will be able to anticipate and hit that car as it goes past the garage door. That's playing quarterback in the NFL."
It helps that he's maniacal about the preparation, and every detail matters. Strief said Brees has put his foot exactly on the same line for stretching in his years with the Saints. He will go to the line and go exactly on it, never past, never short, while others go past it and short of it.
"Some people could interpret that as being OCD," Strief said. "For him, the minute he lets go of a level of consistency, even a little one, it's easy to snow ball. If the little things don't matter, the next thing let go will matter a little more and a little more. That's why he does what he does. It's all detail. He's mentally conditioned himself to make it all matter."
Saints coach Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the league, and his relationship with Brees makes the offense go. But it wouldn't come close to working without Brees.
"He's a coach on the field," Ingram said. "He's in install meetings. He's in game-plan meetings. He watches so much tape. He knows what we're all doing."
"I hate when people try and say he's a system quarterback," Strief said. "He is the system."
A window closing?
As Brees readies for the 2017 season, there is the potential for this to be his last with the Saints. He is entering the final year of his deal, and there has been no sign of him slowing down. He had another 5000-yard passing season last year.
Even so, at his age there are questions as to whether he will be back, but not in his mind.
"I am not worried about it," Brees said. "Things will work out how they're supposed to. I believe I am going to be here for a long time and continue to play football for a long time. I am at peace without whatever happens. My expectation level is that I will finish my career here."
Tom Brady turned 40 last week, and Brees is a few years behind. So the natural question is how much longer will he play?
"When I first got into the league, I thought if I could just become a starter," Brees said "Then it was if could just make it to double-digits, I'd be happy. Then I make it year 10. I am 32, so let's play until I am 35. Then I get to 35, and it's like I might make it to 40. If I make it 40, what's the next objective?"
How about getting the due he deserves? He's guilty of bad timing. He's played in the wrong generation to get the accolades he truly deserves. Brady has the five rings. Peyton Manning was the face of the NFL and Aaron Rodgers is considered by some to be the best in the league.
None of those QBs have the numbers that Brees has, which is why he should be getting more attention for what he's accomplished.
Brees has those five seasons of at least 5,000 passing yards. Brady and Manning have one and Rodgers doesn't have any. Brees has six of the top-17 passing seasons of all time. He also has two of the top-10 seasons in passing touchdowns, and three in the top 13. Manning has two, Brady and Rodgers one each. Brees also has seven seasons averaging 300 yards or more passing in a season. Brady has three and Manning and Rodgers have one each.
Yet, he's not usually mentioned in the same group. Maybe that, too, helps drive the small quarterback with the big mind.
"I've always had a chip on my shoulder from when I was a kid, especially when I got to high school," Brees said. "I was always told what I couldn't do. There's a little satisfaction proving people wrong."
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