Brees Forever Changed our Expectations for Football

Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth straight postseason in the New Orleans Saints experienced a heartbreaking exit and fans feel this one much heavier because there is a growing sense of understanding that franchise quarterback Drew Brees has taken the field for the last time. 

On Sunday, the Saints seemed to be on their way to the NFC Championship but a fumble by tight end Jared Cook in the second half turned possession over to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the wheels fell off quickly. Instead of being up 27-13, the Saints found themselves defeated with a final score of 30-20 three Brees interceptions later. This era went as far as it could go for 15 years and the gas ran out on Sunday. 

For someone that will likely become a member of the NFL Hall-of-Fame, that is not how Saints fans wanted to see Brees, at age 42, go out. Although Brees’ decision is not yet official and he has said that he is weighing his options, returning no longer seems plausible. The throws are becoming shorter and the team has no room to add any more help. Even without Brees, the Saints are projected to have to manage a complicated salary cap situation. To fix the Saints for the foreseeable future financially, it appears practical that the time for retirement has arrived and the organization might have to say some tough goodbyes to other beloved players as well. 

This is where the road ends. 

The end is a painful one but it needs to not overshadow the Brees era in New Orleans as a whole.

Before Brees, the franchise only had one playoff win in history that came on Dec. 30, 2000, as quarterback Aaron Brooks led the Saints over the St. Louis Rams with a final score of 31-28. The Saints were founded in 1967 and did not earn a trip to the playoffs until over 20 years later on Jan. 3, 1988, against the Minnesota Vikings. In all of the years prior to the arrival of Brees, there was dancing in the streets all over the Gulf Coast if the Saints could muster up enough effort to go 7-9. That’s how low times could get for the Saints, also known as the “Ain’ts”, lovable losers from the Big Easy. 

Brees brought star power to the Saints, something the franchise had never truly experienced before. Archie Manning, the father of Peyton and Eli, was the closest thing to a franchise star the Saints had before Brees. His best record as a Saint was 8-8 and fans always said that if he was on a team with a better offensive line he could have “done things.” Texas running back Ricky Williams was drafted high in 1999 with much fanfare and was poised to be one of the best running backs in the league. However, he quickly had become discontent and demanded a trade. Williams’ replacement, Duece McAllister, was a league-leading rusher but still didn’t experience the accolades that Brees would go on to achieve in his career. 

Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Seeing the end of his career in New Orleans is like watching Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth walk away from the game forever, but also imagine that instead of the metropolises of Chicago or Boston being affected, it’s Portland or Milwaukee. New Orleans is a small market and although opportunity shares seem more even in the NFL than other professional sports leagues, it is still extremely difficult to keep elite players in small markets for the long term. 

Brees and New Orleans seemed to be a natural pairing in that they both were often counted out. The barely 6-foot Brees only received one major college offer coming out of Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, to Purdue University. Once drafted by the San Diego Chargers, Brees was often not thought of as more than a “game manager” and not someone capable of making the big throw. When a devastating shoulder injury to his throwing arm nearly ended his career, the Chargers let him walk out of the door as a free agent as they turned the job over to rookie Philip Rivers. Brees was determined to stay in the league but not many teams came calling. 

The first head coach that was interested in Brees post-surgery was Nick Saban, then head coach of the Miami Dolphins. As fate would have it, Brees failed the team’s physical. As he sought a second opinion, Miami opted to sign quarterback Dante Culpepper instead. 

The Saints, in 2006, were a year removed after a disastrous 3-13 season where they traveled from city-to-city with no home stadium. The franchise nearly moved to San Antonio, Texas. After public pressure, they didn’t and were preparing for a full return in New Orleans. The city still looked like a warzone a year later and it was hard to comprehend it being an attractive landing spot for free agents. After being rejected by the Dolphins, Brees and New Orleans were truly the only options each other had left. While some speculated that the Saints may draft USC quarterback Matt Leinart, the Brees signing also gave the franchise the luxury of drafting Leinart’s flashy teammate, running back Reggie Bush, instead. 

New Orleans took a chance on a guy that was designated as “damaged goods” and Brees did not disappoint. Right away, it was clear that he would be the best quarterback in franchise history. Every year, records would be broken and he would rise to the level of eliteness. His star power was felt in the city and on the Gulf Coast. All of the sudden, as people returned post-storm, things would become vibrant again. Businesses returned, crime reduced, economies rebounded, and the people had something to believe in again. 

After arrival, Brees began to see the post-Katrina era as more than just football, it was a mission. He did not live in the suburbs. He moved his family to Uptown, in the heart of the city. They focused their efforts and resources towards revitalization efforts. He did much more than what is asked of a professional athlete is ever asked to do. 

He became the thing every up-and-coming athlete in the state aspired to be. He set a new standard for what local fans should expect. 

Remember Brees as something rare around these parts and as someone that refused to ever go gentle into that good night.

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