Drew Brees: Career retrospective

Estimated read time 15 min read


When NFL legend Drew Brees suffered an injury on his throwing shoulder during the 2005 NFL season, it felt like his career was over. Just four years later, the overlooked quarterback led the New Orleans Saints to their first-ever Super Bowl victory on the field and helped the city make a comeback from Hurricane Katrina off it. Let’s look at the career of Drew Brees, one of the greatest stories in NFL history.

 

A Texas star

American-Statesman-USA TODAY NET

It is often said everything is bigger in Texas. High school football is no exception. It’s a cultural phenomenon that fills up 30,000-seat stadiums. At Westlake High School, a short-statured quarterback by the name of Drew Brees would flip the famous saying on its head and etch his name into Texas high school sports history. 

Brees was a three-sport athlete at Westlake, playing football, basketball and baseball. Although he won a state championship in football, he wasn’t heavily recruited. He received scholarships from Purdue and Kentucky. When decision time approached, Brees committed to Purdue. 

 

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College days at Purdue

College days at Purdue

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Brees assumed the role of backup quarterback as a freshman. During this time, he mastered the Purdue Boilermakers’ spread offense. When Brees got his chance to start, he took off running and never looked back. He had a breakout year in his sophomore season, passing for 3,983 yards and 39 touchdowns. He followed this up with a solid junior year. In his senior year, the overlooked high school recruit would make history at Purdue.

 

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Bringing Purdue its first Big Ten Championship in 33 years

Bringing Purdue its first Big Ten Championship in 33 years

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

As the leader of the Boilermakers’ explosive attack, Brees launched 3,668 passing yards and 26 touchdowns and their first Big Ten Championship in 33 years. Brees led the Boilermakers in impressive victories over Ohio State and Michigan. He won the Maxwell Award and marched the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl in his sensational senior year. Brees held every Purdue football passing record when he graduated.

 

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Doubts about Brees’ NFL potential

Doubts about Brees' NFL potential

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Several NFL scouts and analysts discredited his college success because of his short size for a pro quarterback (6-foot, 209 pounds), questions surrounding his arm strength and the lack of NFL passing concepts implemented in Purdue’s spread offense. Because of these concerns, Brees fell to the second round of the draft, where the San Diego Chargers selected him 32nd overall. Written off as a college legend who’d struggle in the pros, Brees spent his rookie year as a backup to 1984 Heisman Winner and Canadian Football League (CFL) legend Doug Flutie.

 

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Taking over the offense

Taking over the offense

Brees handing the ball to fellow NFL legend LaDainian Tomlinson in a mud bowl (2005).
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Brees won the starting quarterback job in 2002. After being handed the keys to the offense, Brees launched 3,284 yards, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In 2003, he was benched for Flutie at one point. It seemed as though the draft day concerns about Brees were becoming a reality.

 

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A quarterback controversy in sunny San Diego

A quarterback controversy in sunny San Diego

Stan Liu-USA TODAY Sports

Brees faced waves of criticism on the sands of San Diego. When the Chargers drafted Philip Rivers out of NC State in 2004, a quarterback controversy engulfed sunny San Diego. The constant pressure of knowing that Rivers could take his job at any moment brought the best out of Brees, who bounced back from his early career struggles to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Brees proved the doubters wrong. The coastal quarterback wasn’t washed up yet. The Chargers went 12-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Jets.

 

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The injury that changed everything

The injury that changed everything

Brees walks to the sideline after being injured against the Denver Broncos (2005).
Donald Miralle-Staff-Getty Images

By now, Brees had done more than enough to keep his job. He accepted the role of franchise quarterback while giving Chargers fan optimism over the prospect that the Drew Brees-LaDainian Tomlinson-led Chargers would bring San Diego its first Super Bowl. Brees continued his solid performance in 2005 until tragedy struck the ascending quarterback. In the last game of the season against the arch-rival Denver Broncos, Brees dislocated his throwing shoulder. The injury was so severe that it required surgery and a long rehab period. Instead of signing Brees, the Chargers let him walk and gave Rivers a chance at the lead. The injury would cast dark storm clouds over Brees’ career.

 

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Signing with the New Orleans Saints

Signing with the New Orleans Saints

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Just months after suffering a potential career-ending injury, Brees hit the free agent market with hopes of finding a team willing to give him a chance. His choices were narrowed to the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints. Both were in desperate need of a franchise quarterback, which is something Brees showed glimpses of during his up-and-down Chargers tenure. The Saints, who stuck with Brees during his rehab process, won the Brees sweepstakes, signing the quarterback to a deal that worked well for both sides.

 

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Giving New Orleans hope

Giving New Orleans hope

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When Brees chose the Saints, not only was he joining one of the league’s perennial losers, but he was also coming to a city heartbroken by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. 

After Hurricane Katrina, Saints’ ownership had serious conversations about relocating to San Antonio. The New Orleans Superdome was severely damaged during Katrina. It seemed like the Saints’ days in the Big Easy were numbered. The local government fought hard to keep the Saints franchise in Louisiana. Losing the team would lead to economic woes and hurt morale in a city that desperately needed something to cheer for. They made ownership happy by rebuilding the Superdome. They built a sense of unity between the two parties, who both wanted to see the city succeed. The New Orleans Saints would play football in 2006.

With the help of new head coach Sean Payton, Brees led the Saints to a 10-6 record and their first NFC Championship Game appearance in franchise history. It was a remarkable year for a quarterback many thought would never be able to throw a football again. He proved the doubters wrong. In the process, he also helped save the Saints franchise.

 

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Winning Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year

Winning Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

During Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans evacuees sought refuge in the beloved Superdome as a means of survival. Inside the Superdome, the scene was a hectic one. Inhabitants panicked as the hurricane wore on. Flooding, food shortages and contaminated water were only a few of the problems they had to endure living in the Dome. When it was over, they came back home to destroyed houses and crushed dreams. Yet, in the middle of all this suffering, the Dome stood tall during the storm.

Just one year later, the Superdome, which was once a place of refuge for so many, was now a beacon of hope as they cheered on a playoff-bound Saints team. On the field, Brees was leading a young and hungry contender. Off it, he was helping the city that believed in him when no one else did make a comeback through the Brees Dream Foundation and other acts of philanthropy. 

Brees was named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2006. The prestigious award is given to a player who does good on and off the field. One of the most deserving candidates to ever receive the award, Brees continues to help those in need after retiring in 2020.

 

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Turning the ‘Aints into contenders

Turning the 'Aints into contenders

Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Before head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in the Big Easy in 2006, the Saints were called the ‘Aints as an insult and a constant reminder of their losing ways. For much of their history, opposing teams viewed playing the Saints as a guaranteed win every year. It got so bad during the 1970s and ‘80s that fans wore paper bags over their heads.

Founded in 1967, the Saints made their playoff debut in 1987. Before the Payton-Brees era, the Saints earned five playoff appearances. During the Payton-Brees era (2006-2020), the Saints made the playoffs nine times. The dynamic duo took the Saints from worst to first. They’ll be legends forever in the Big Easy because of it.

 

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The Saints are Super Bowl champions!

The Saints are Super Bowl champions!

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2009 was the year the Payton-Brees Saints put it together. The team went 13-3. Brees launched 4,388 yards and led the league in touchdowns (34), passer rating (109.6) and completion percentage (70.6%). The Saints dominated in the playoffs and marched their way to Super Bowl XLIV for a matchup with Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.

The Saints handily defeated the Colts, 31-17, thanks to a gutsy onside kick to open the second half and Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter’s pick-six against NFL legend Peyton Manning. Brees showed up to the occasion, passing for 288 yards and two touchdowns and bringing home Super Bowl MVP. 

New Orleans is guaranteed a parade every February: Mardi Gras. Thanks to the Saints, there’d be a party all February in the Big Easy.

 

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Cover athlete for Madden 11

Cover athlete for Madden 11

EA Sports

Brees was featured on the cover of “Madden 11.” The legendary quarterback earned the right to grace the cover after winning the Saints their first Super Bowl just four years after Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, Brees didn’t fall victim to the Madden Curse.

 

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Upset by the Seahawks in the Beast Quake

Upset by the Seahawks in the Beast Quake

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The Saints were ready to go back-to-back in 2010. The team had an abundance of returning starters and felt destined for another deep playoff run. Their great season ended quicker than anticipated, thanks to Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Quake run in the first round of the playoffs. While the upset victory stung, the Saints still had a lot of playoff football left in them in the years to come.

 

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A record-setting season in 2011

A record-setting season in 2011

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Brees torched the NFL in 2011. He led the league in completions (468), completion percentage (71.2%), touchdowns (46) and shattered the record for passing yards in a single season with 5,476. The Saints’ complex, pass-heavy spread offense looked unstoppable, leading the team to a 13-3 record. Unfortunately, they met their maker in the second round of the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers, thanks to The Catch III

Brees won Offensive Player of the Year in 2011. Despite his record-breaking season, he finished second in MVP votes, losing the honor to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

 

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The Bountygate year

The Bountygate year

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Saints head coach Sean Payton served a one-year suspension in 2012 because of his involvement in the Bountygate Scandal. Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt split coaching duties in his absence, who managed to finish 7-9. As the Saints fought through this adversity, their franchise quarterback wrote his name into NFL history. Brees broke Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas’ record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54. Unitas held the record since 1960. Many thought it would never be broken. Even though Brees was breaking records, the Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs thanks to a historically bad defense.

 

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Leading the Saints to their first playoff victory in an away game

Leading the Saints to their first playoff victory in an away game

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Brees and Co. had a great outing in 2013. The franchise quarterback led the Saints to an 11-5 record and won their first playoff win as the away team against the Philadelphia Eagles, per The Guardian. While they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the next round, the 2013 Saints made franchise history. 

Fun fact: The Eagles starting quarterback for that playoff game was Nick Foles. The Super Bowl LII MVP has posted an 0-2 playoff record against fellow Westlake alum Drew Brees. It seems his kryptonite is Brees.

 

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Struggles mount in the the Big Easy

Struggles mount in the the Big Easy

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Not everything was Mardi Gras in the mid-10s for the Saints. They missed the playoffs three years in a row from 2014-2016. Don’t be fooled by their record, though, as the team remained competitive. They lost a lot of close games and couldn’t sustain a winning streak with a young team. The highlight for Brees in these years was tossing seven touchdowns in an all-time great duel with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in 2015.

 

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The Minneapolis Miracle

The Minneapolis Miracle

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Brees had the Saints back in the playoff mix in 2017, posting an 11-5 record. The Saints were energized by drafted newcomers, including safety Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara and edge rusher Trey Hendrickson. That is until Minnesota Vikings star receiver Stefon Diggs scored the game-winning touchdown in the second round of the playoffs, which would come to be known as The Minneapolis Miracle. The blown defensive coverage sent the Saints packing during a season where a second Super Bowl ring seemed likely.

 

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The pass interference call that never was

The pass interference call that never was

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints bounced back into the 2018 playoffs thanks to Brees’ leadership and a suffocating defense. In the NFC Championship Game, the Saints were faced with another wild playoff finish. Brees marched the Saints to the red zone with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter. On a 4th-and-10 play, He threw the ball to an open Tommy Lee-Lewis down the sideline. He was hit before he could make the catch thanks to a missed pass interference call. The call that never was became a big reason why the Saints lost the game and never went to a second Super Bowl. It’s the worst missed call in NFL history.

 

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Brees’ last ride

Brees' last ride

SCOTT CLAUSE / USATODAY Network via Imagn Content Services, LLC

At 41 years old, Brees played his last season in the NFL. He looked ready to retire as the campaign wore on. Brees’ arm gave out late in his career. It’s easy to see why when you factor in his age and career pass attempts (10,551). Throws over 20 yards, the ones he made on a dime during the Saints Super Bowl run, were now difficult to make. He still thrived in the Saints system, passing for 2,942 yards and 24 touchdowns. 

The Saints played good football and lost to Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. After much thought and consideration, Brees announced his retirement in March 2021.

 

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One of the most prolific passers in NFL history

One of the most prolific passers in NFL history

Brees gears up for a pass at the Pro Bowl (2018).
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Brees is the greatest player in NFL history to never win MVP. He was underrated in a great era for quarterbacks. However, he was in the running for the award every year, thanks to his golden arm.

Over the course of his NFL career, Brees led the league in passing yards seven times, completion percentage six times, passing touchdowns four times and passer rating two times. Year in and year out, Brees put up astounding numbers that jump off the paper. Brees finished his career with 80,358 passing yards and 571 touchdowns.

Not bad for a guy who was told he’d never throw again in 2005!

 

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A New Orleans hero

A New Orleans hero

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There are many ways to sum up Brees’ greatness. Maybe the best way to define his legacy is as the athlete who helped New Orleans come back from Hurricane Katrina while winning the Saints their first Super Bowl. In the process, he became the embodiment of an entire city.

While he never won them a second Super Bowl, he is still a New Orleans legend. The Saints’ plan was to bring home a second Lombardi Trophy, the football gods had different plans. They were burnt by several wild playoff finishes toward the end of Brees’ career. Regardless, these losses have no effect on his resume.

 

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Outside of football

Outside of football

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Outside of the game he loves, Brees has built a great life for himself. He is a devout Christian. He uses his faith and to make the world a better place through philanthropy. In 2003, he married Brittany Brees. They have four kids and raised them in New Orleans. He also is the franchise owner of several Jimmy John’s sandwich shops and owns a stake in Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux.

 

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A first-ballot Hall of Famer

A first-ballot Hall of Famer

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Brees lived a great life. A Super Bowl Champion. A record-breaking quarterback. The savior of the Saints franchise. A highlight reel that goes on for hours. When it’s all said and done, Brees will live in NFL immortality in the halls of Canton, where he belongs.

David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. He ran cross country at Penn State, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and is a self taught journalist. He’s a diehard Philly sports fan. When he isn’t watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing, and traveling. You can find more of his writing at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter at @dave_hunt44.





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