Ten years ago on March 14, 2006, the New Orleans Saints signed Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million contract. At the time, Brees was 27 years old and coming off major shoulder surgery after a freak shoulder injury that ended his 2005 season. It was a major risk for the Saints, but the franchise had nowhere else to turn and needed to roll the dice.
The Saints were coming off one of the most trying seasons in NFL history in 2005. Left without a home thanks to the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, the team had to endure a 3-13 campaign that saw them split their home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge with their opening “home” game having to be played on the road at the New York Giants. Head coach Jim Haslett was fired and replaced by first-time head coach Sean Payton and the Aaron Brooks Era was coming to an end. If that wasn’t enough, coming back to New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina still presented an enormous question mark with rumors and reports throughout the 2005 season that the Saints would leave their home permanently.
When the team announced Brees’ signing in the spring of 2006, it seemed like the deck was stacked completely against him, the franchise, and the city. In spite of all the odds facing him, though, Brees was incredibly optimistic about his future in New Orleans:
“I just felt that energy in New Orleans,” Brees said Tuesday night [March 14]. “From the very beginning, there was a genuine feeling that they wanted me there. They believe I can come back from this shoulder injury and lead them to a championship. They were as confident as I am, and that meant a lot.”
Even the most passionate, hopeful, loyal Saints fan could have never imagined that those prophetic words would turn out to be true. In reality, Saints fans were just hopeful to have a team to call their own for the foreseeable future on March 14th, 2006.
Alas, that signing of Brees transformed the Saints organization and finally, improbably, brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans. But it did much more than that. Bringing Brees to New Orleans completely changed the landscape of both professional and college football for the next decade. And in its own small way, Brees’ signing even helped bring back one of America’s great cities from the brink.
Torching the Record Books — A Remarkable 10-Year Run
In five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Brees put up some decent numbers, but his career highs in passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating would hardly put him in the elite category.
In ten years with the New Orleans Saints, Brees has put up Hall of Fame numbers, with what may be the most statistically jaw-dropping decade of any quarterback in NFL history.
It’s a shame how criminally underrated Brees’ New Orleans tenure has been from a historical and a statistical perspective. If he had even a league-average defense throughout his Saints career, who knows how many more victories and trophies Brees would have? Brees often gets overshadowed by Manning or Brady in the long view and Rodgers or Wilson in the short view. Nevertheless, getting lost in the shuffle just might be a testament to how absurdly and consistently prolific Brees and Sean Payton’s offense has been over the last decade. His numbers in New Orleans have been like something out of a video game.
Brees’ 10-year Saints career: 48,555 passing yards, 348 TDs, 152 INTs, 67.0% completion, 99.0 QB rating, 29 game-winning drives, eight Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP.
Those numbers would put Brees eighth all-time in passing yards, ahead of Hall of Famers like Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, and Johnny Unitas. It would put him sixth in passing TDs, ahead of Fran Tarkenton and John Elway. And again, that’s just in his Saints career alone. If Brees can play three more years at a high level, there’s a good chance he eclipses Peyton Manning’s career yards and touchdowns totals.
Brees has half of the top ten seasons for passing yards in NFL history, including four of eight seasons over 5,000 yards. Stop and think about that. Drew Brees has thrown for as many 5,000-yard seasons as THE REST OF THE QUARTERBACKS WHO HAVE EVER PLAYED IN THE NFL COMBINED. He would have had a fifth 5,000-yard season last year if he hadn’t missed a game due to injury, yet still led the league with 4,870 passing yards at 36 years old.
Brees’ crowning achievement beyond the numbers will be doing what many football fans thought was truly impossible — bringing a Super Bowl to New Orleans. In Super Bowl XLIV, Brees went 32-for-39 for 288 yards and two TDs on his way to claiming MVP honors.
Yes, the Saints won a Super Bowl. It’s still hard to believe seven years later. This was a team whose greatest claim to fame was fans putting bags over their heads! Thanks to the Brees-Payton connection, though, the organization finally developed a culture of winning.
— In the four decades before No. 9 arrived on the scene, the Saints had won a grand total of one playoff game. In the ten years of Brees, the Saints have won six, including the march to Super Bowl XLIV.
— The Saints had five 10+ win seasons from 1967-2005. From 2006-2015, they matched that total.
— The Saints had two division titles from 1967-2005. From 2006-2015, they have had three.
Yes, Brees has been fortunate to play in a wide-open era of football when the passing game has exploded and numbers are inflated around the league. But in many ways, Brees and the Saints are the symbols of this transformation in professional football. The old adage used to be that you had to run the ball and stop the run. In the modern NFL, it’s pass the ball and stop the pass — largely because of the dominance of quarterbacks like Brees.
Reggie White going to the Packers has always been cited as the greatest free agent signing in NFL history, but the data above may show that it’s time to slide Brees into that top slot.
The Ripple Effect — Nick Saban, the Miami Dolphins, and Alabama’s Dynasty
Wondering “what could have been” is always a fascinating quest when it comes to sports and imagining how wildly different things might have turned out if just one decision went the other way. Brees’ signing might have the biggest ripple effect of them all throughout both the professional and college ranks.
Everything was set for Brees to sign with the Miami Dolphins and head coach Nick Saban. Yes, that Nick Saban! Although Saban’s time in the NFL ended in disappointment, it’s not a stretch to say that if he would have signed Brees, he might still be coaching with the Dolphins in the NFL. Saban said so himself.
The Dolphins went 9-7 in Saban’s first season in 2005, ending the year with six straight victories. By adding a star quarterback to replace Gus Frerotte, Saban could take the franchise into the playoffs and make them a perennial contender.
So what happened? The full story on why it didn’t work out for Brees in Miami makes for fascinating reading from both sides. Ultimately, the Dolphins decided to pass on Brees because of questions about his shoulder, opening the door for New Orleans to put pen to paper. Instead, Miami traded for Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper.
In all honesty, hindsight is always 20/20. At the time it may have been viewed as a prudent decision, considering the extent of Brees’ devastating injury. Dr. James Andrews has called Brees’ comeback the most remarkable he’s ever seen from an athlete.
While the Saints were going to their first NFC Championship Game in 2006, the Dolphins slid to 6-10. Culpepper’s time in South Florida was marred by physical ailments, benchings, and friction with Saban. He only played four games with the team before being released the next offseason.
Culpepper’s Dolphins career consisted of 929 passing yards and two TDs. Compare that to Brees’ numbers above and it’s enough to make Dolphins fans want to channel their inner Ray Finkle.
In the decade since passing on Brees, the Dolphins have just one winning season and one AFC East title. Had they signed Brees and partnered one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history with arguably one of the best defensive masterminds in football history, the sky could have been the limit in Miami. Could you even imagine what a Brees-led offense and a Saban-coached defense might be capable of producing? Maybe the Dolphins would have won a Super Bowl. Maybe they even would have stopped the Patriots dynasty and developed one of the great rivalries in NFL history. The dominoes that could have fallen with Brees in aqua green, just on the NFL side, are endless.
But what about college? That’s where this game of “what if?” becomes even more spellbinding.
It was also to be Saban’s last season coaching in the NFL. After just two years in Miami, he bolted back to the college ranks to become head coach at Alabama, replacing the fired Mike Shula. Bama celebrated Saban’s hire as a home run and that turned out to be a massive understatement.
Saban is 100-18 in nine years at Alabama with a quartet of national championships under his belt. Alabama has already even built a statue for him, for goodness sake!
Had Brees signed with the Dolphins and Saban not been lured back to the college ranks, the Tide could have found a capable replacement to lead them back to prominence… but there’s no way they could have reached the same heights as they have under Saban. There wouldn’t be four national championships. There wouldn’t be a statue. The SEC’s superiority complex over the rest of college football might not exist either.
Saban’s Alabama is the definitive dynasty for this generation of college football. The Tide have spearheaded the SEC’s run at the top of the sport for the better part of the last decade. And none of it may have happened had Saban and the Dolphins not let Drew Brees walk to New Orleans.
Bringing New Orleans Back
Had New Orleans not taken a chance on Brees and turned the franchise around, it’s impossible to predict what would have happened to the team and the city. When Brees signed with the Saints, the future of both was uncertain at best. Over the last 10 years, though, Brees has developed a connection with the city of New Orleans that is unlike any other in professional sports. In an age where fans seem to be losing that connection with athletes, the relationship between Brees and New Orleans is a throwback to a time long ago. How many star quarterbacks walk home from practice and take selfies with fans on the streets?
While the on-field implications are amazing enough to fathom in their own right, Brees’ biggest impact has been on the city of New Orleans. The Saints winning football games wasn’t going to put anyone back in their homes, but you just can’t quantify the hope, enthusiasm, and unity brought about by their success. As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina occurred this past summer, Brees opened up and looked back on what his years in New Orleans had meant in an interview with Robin Roberts, relayed by the Times-Picayune:
“There were so many emotional moments along the way, just because we knew this was about an overall recovery; an overall resurrection of this city, of this community, of a spirit,” Brees said. “I needed somebody to believe in me just as much as New Orleans needed someone to believe in them. In so many ways, New Orleans not only saved my football career, but for me as a person.”
Brees also said he keeps the visions and memories of Katrina in his mind while playing in the ‘Dome because it helps him remember that he’s playing for more than just winning a football game.
“I’m very proud of how far New Orleans has come over the last 10 years. I would say that not only has New Orleans come back, it’s come back stronger in so many ways,” he said.
As Brees made his personal comeback, so did New Orleans. The two will be forever linked together. And it all dates back to that fateful day a decade ago when the Saints took the chance to sign Drew Brees. Laissez les bon temps rouler.