On March 14, Drew Brees announced the end of his NFLcareer after playing for 20 years, 15 of those spent in New Orleans. The surefire Hall of Famer is the league's all-time leader in passing yards (80,358) and completions (7,142). He's second in touchdown passes (571), completion percentage (67.7), and passing yards per game (280.0). He's also the record holder for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (54). In short, he's one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Although Brees started his career with the San Diego Chargers after going in the second round (32nd overall) of the 2001 NFL Draft, it was with the Saints that he truly made his mark as a player and left an indelible mark on the franchise as well as the city and people of New Orleans.
After suffering what was believed to be a career-threatening shoulder injury in the last game of the 2005 regular season, and with the Chargers prepared to hand the reins over to a young Philip Rivers, Brees signed with New Orleans as a free agent the following March, joining then-rookie head coach Sean Payton with the Saints coming off of a 3-13 showing. All that followed was the most successful era in franchise history.
Over the next 15 seasons, Brees went 151-94 (including playoffs) as New Orleans' starting quarterback with 10 playoff appearances. Brees' Saints teams claimed seven division titles, made three trips to the NFC Championship Game, and won Super Bowl XLIV. He made 12 Pro Bowls and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year twice (2008, '11), among other many other accolades while also rewriting the record books.
Brees played a major role in resurrecting a perennially struggling franchise. Before his arrival in New Orleans, the city was lying devastated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was on the verge of losing its NFL team to San Antonio or another larger city.
New Orleans had stayed loyal to its team despite decades of underachievement mixed with outright embarrassment. In the 39 years prior to Brees' signing, the Saints had only managed seven winning seasons, with five playoff appearances and just one playoff victory. Home games rarely sold out, as empty seats in the Superdome oftentimes outnumbered fans.
Despite that awful history, Brees' arrival inspired a beleaguered fan base as a streak of sold-out home games began with the first contest back in the rebuilt Superdome in September 2006. That streak continued throughout Brees' tenure with the Saints.
Here's a brief rundown of some of Brees' greatest individual achievements and team accomplishments during his unforgettable 15-year Saints career.
In his first season in New Orleans, Brees directed the Saints to their most success up to that point. A 5-1 start resulted in a 10-6 record, their first NFC South title (first division title since 2000), and the second seed in the playoffs. A 27-24 home victory against Philadelphia in the Divisional Round was just the franchise's second postseason win ever.
Even though the Saints lost 39-14 to the Bears in their first NFC Championship Game appearance, Brees punctuated the statement that they were no longer also-rans but had become Super Bowl contenders. That included a 42-17 road demolition of Dallas on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 14 with Brees throwing for 384 yards and five touchdowns. The league's leading passer (4,418 yards), Brees earned first-team All-Pro honors. He also was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year after the season for his charitable work off the field in his new home city.
After stumbling to 7-9 and 8-8 marks in 2007 and '08, Brees and the Saints reached the pinnacle of professional football. New Orleans rolled to a 13-0 start, including a 38-17 manhandling of New England at home on "Monday Night Football," with Brees scorching the Patriots for 371 yards and five touchdowns.
Even though he played in just 15 games, Brees led the league in touchdown passes (34), passer rating (109.6), and completion percentage (70.6). He made the second of what would be seven straight Pro Bowls but saved his best for the postseason.
After demolishing Arizona in the Divisional Round and outlasting Minnesota in overtime to win the NFC Championship Game, Brees took home MVP honors in Super Bowl XLIV, throwing for 288 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints' 31-17 victory over Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts.
This was Brees' best season, statistically speaking. He broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record with 5,476 yards, although Manning would pass that by one yard just two years later. Brees led the NFL with a career-high 46 touchdown passes, a 71.2 percent completion rate, 468 completions, and a whopping 342.3 passing yards per game.
Brees' astounding numbers contributed to the Saints' 13-3 record and a third NFC South title in six seasons. Unfortunately, arguably the most talented team in franchise history lost 36-32 in a thrilling Divisional Round matchup at San Francisco. Brees put up 462 passing yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in a losing effort.
After back-to-back losing seasons, Brees tried to single-handedly drag the Saints into the playoffs. He finished first in the NFL in multiple categories, including passing yards (5,208), completions (471), attempts (673), and yards per game (325.5). His 5,208 passing yards still rank fourth in history, and he tossed 37 touchdown passes. Nevertheless, the Saints went 7-9, missing out on the playoffs for a third straight season.
In the third game of the season, Brees surpassed Brett Favre in career completions (6,301) in an eventual 43-37 overtime road victory against NFC South rival Atlanta. But for all of Brees' passing exploits, he made his biggest mark in that game with his legs — first tying the score on a seven-yard touchdown run with 1:15 left in regulation and then winning the game in overtime on a one-yard dive.
A few weeks later, Brees made more history on "Monday Night Football," breaking Peyton Manning's career mark for passing yards in style — with a 62-yard touchdown in a 43-19 rout of Washington. Brees finished the season with a 74.4 percent completion rate, the highest in NFL history, and also led the league in passer rating (115.7).
At 13-3, New Orleans claimed its second straight NFC South crown and was the top seed in the playoffs. After beating the Eagles in the Divisional Round, the Saints hosted the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. However, the home team ended up on the wrong end of the infamous "NOLA No-Call," denying Brees a shot at a second Super Bowl appearance.
More history for Brees in a primetime setting, as he broke Manning's career touchdown pass mark in Week 15 on "Monday Night Football." Besides tossing his 540th touchdown in a 34-7 rout of the Colts, Brees also set a new record for the highest completion rate in a single game (min. 20 attempts) by connecting on 29 of 30 passes.
Although Brees missed five games because of a thumb injury, he was once again the league's most accurate passer (for the sixth time in his career) as New Orleans won a third straight division title with a 13-3 record. The Saints were upset at home by Minnesota in the Wild Card Round, losing 26-20 in overtime.
In what would end up being his final season, Brees left it all on the field, going 9-3 as the starter while missing Weeks 11-14 because of broken ribs and a collapsed lung. New Orleans went 12-4 and won the NFC South for a record fourth straight season but fell at home in the Divisional Round to Tom Brady and eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay. It's fitting that Brees' final game was against a fellow future Hall of Fame peer in Brady, who had passed him in career touchdown passes earlier in the season.
If a judgment of a man is that he left a place (or in this case a team) and situation better than how he had found them, then Drew Brees truly achieved greatness during his 15-year run as the New Orleans' Saints quarterback.
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.