Drew Brees wasn't nearly as bad as critics think in 2014

Saints QB Garrett Grayson Starstruck by Drew Brees


By Michael Schottey
FanDuel

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The New Orleans Saints were terrible in 2014, but Drew Brees wasn't the reason.

After a 7-9 season that was both laughable and disappointing, everyone wants to exact their pound of flesh from one area of the team or another. Since the buck often stops at the desk of the head coach or the quarterback's locker, Sean Payton and Drew Brees have taken some flack (along with just about every member of the roster, coaching staff, ownership group, front office, fan base and T-shirt cannoneers.)

Without some context, 7-9 doesn't look so bad. I mean, teams like the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders would've killed for 7-9, but this was supposed to be a championship-contending team. They couldn't even punch their way out of the soggy paper bag that was the NFC South.

Disappointment barely begins to describe what happened to the Saints last season.

But almost none of that was Drew Brees' fault.

Lest you think I'm about to demolish a strawman, understand this has been a storyline for much of the past six months.

NOLA.com asked if the 36-year old Brees was in decline, then wondered when his contract was going to get restructured. TheWashington Post agreed, saying Brees isn't worth what the Saints are going to be paying him in 2015. NFL Media's Ian Rapoport talked about the Saints discussing life after Brees and drafting a QB high in 2015. GQ asked how New Orleans (the people and the city) were coping with the decline of Brees. The Huffington Post declared Drew Brees is not playing like Drew Brees.

A team blog called "Big Easy Believer" even asked if this was the year to find Brees' replacement.

Heck, it got so bad that Brad Pitt had to come to the rescue with his very own "Leave Brittany alone!" moment.

Look, no one is saying that Brees—who turned 36 in January and is the third-oldest starting NFL quarterback after Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—is the same today as he was five years ago. No one should be saying that. A lot of people assume quarterbacks will always go until they're at or near 40 years old. That's simply not true. People who have actually studied this rather than simply remembering a few old quarterbacks show that, on average, quarterbacks peak from 27-28, continue to play at a high level for a few years and then drop off the map.

The greats – and Brees is among them – can keep that high level going for a few years, but not forever.

Of course Brees is declining. Manning is declining. Brady is declining. We're all declining in some way shape or form. Life is just an endless march toward an icy grave, blah blah blah...

On the one hand, it's almost insulting to pretend guys like Brady, Brees and Manning are the same as they were in their prime, because their prime was so darn good, it's a knock to compare the two, but Brees was—objectively—still one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season, and his decline wasn't nearly as stark as people wanted to make it seem.

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That's really the problem with this sort of thing. A top player stops playing at a high level, and immediately people swoop down to declare his career over and find the next big thing. It happened with Brady in 2013 when he was in the eye of a perfect storm of terrible crap happening to the Patriots offense, and it's happening to Manning. Brees, who has always been lightly respected compared to those two, simply gets it in spades.

In the words of Monty Python, his career is not dead yet.

As I mentioned in Monday's "Shots Fired," there are a number of metrics I tend to trust more than others when it comes to quarterbacks. I'd be remiss, too, if I didn't point out that I trust the metrics I do, in part, because of work done by Brad Gagnon of Bleacher Report a few years ago when he took a look at a lot of the metrics commonly used. Also, I take my own notes about quarterback play. Over time, I can largely tell when a metric lines up with good quarterback play and has few outliers included or excluded.

Let's meet our metrics!

Yards Per Attempt (Y/ATT or YPA): Stats lie—they really do! The biggest reason stats lie and liars love stats is because the context in, around and left out of a stat isn't always clear. Think of Y/ATT as a way of combining completion percentage and total yardage in a way that makes both of those stats mean a little more than they do on their own. With this stat, we're not rewarding system/high volume quarterbacks as much, nor are we leaving out gunslinger quarterbacks who take low-percentage shots down the field and help their teams by doing so.

Passer Rating: Much maligned over the years, and rightly so, the NFL's standard passer rating shouldn't be anyone's go-to stat, but it's readily available and about as standardized as a stat can be. It's not perfect, and could use an update (see below) but overall, it's stood the test of time because the best quarterbacks always seem to find their way to the top. It essentially takes Y/ATT and meshes it (in a way) with touchdown-to-interception ratio.

QBR: Devised by ESPN and somewhat arcane because they're not telling us how they do it, QBR has sort of become this number that's meant to mesh traditional QB passing stats with running and situational play. It includes things like "win probability" and other advanced stats, and can be easily dismissed as mumbo jumbo when the results look a little funky to the trained eye, but plenty of trained numbers gurus have unpacked and re-packed QBR and have found value in it.

Pro Football Focus Grading: PFF does what few sites can. I've been trained as both a coach and a scout. I watch every single NFL game every single week and come away with hundreds of notes on players. I barely scrape the surface of what they've put together because of the size of their team, their peer-reviewing and their system. However, whereas I once spent most of my time convincing everyday fans their numbers were worthwhile, I now spend a lot of my time convincing some of the same people they're not gospel. Dig into PFF and you'll find lots of interesting metrics, but the grades are subjective and often misunderstood for a variety of reasons.

So, how did Brees fare in our chosen stats?

Last season, Brees led the NFL is passing yardage (4,952). I repeat: he led the league in passing yardage. Did you know that? With all of the doom, gloom and Ragnarok-level of apocalyptic language about the end of his career, he finished the year leading the league in total yardage!

Yet, stats lie, remember? Take those yards and divide them by total attempts, and Brees suddenly drops to 11th (7.51). Brees at 11th is far more representative of how he played last season than No. 1, and doubly so when you realize his completion percentage (69.2) was still ridiculously elite and No. 2 overall.

Above, I said Y/ATT was a way of combining total yards with completion percentage, and when you unpack Y/ATT to see good overall yardage and good completion percentage, it's easy to assume the quarterback was completing a lot of middling passes that stacked up the total yardage, but wasn't really moving the team down the field. This may have been the case at times in 2014, but wasn't always.

Compared to himself, Brees' Y/ATT dropped from 7.94 to that 7.51, and was his worst mark since 2010.

In passer rating, Brees fared much better.

With a rating of 97.0, Brees ranked sixth in the league overall. His passer rating was below Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Manning and Brady, and actually above Andrew Luck (seventh) and Russell Wilson (10th). Though Brees' interceptions were up to 17 in 2014, that number is not out of the realm of possibility for a quarterback who throws as much as he does. In fact, it was the fifth time Brees has thrown at least that many interceptions. Passer rating also includes touchdowns, which Brees also fared well in, throwing 33 overall. That tied for fifth in the league with Brady.

Let's go to QBR.

Brees was sixth-best in QBR with a mark of 71.6. He sat below Romo, Rodgers, Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger, but above Luck (11th) and Wilson (12th) again. This was actually the third-best QBR mark of his career since the stat started being compiled in 2006, and his best since 2011. If we unpack the number a bit, we can find that Brees lost points as a sub-par runner and in taking a lot of sacks, but ranked highly as a passer and in the clutch. These are things someone who watched 16 Saints games last season might have already known, but it's good to have the statistical backing.

Finally, to Pro Football Focus, where Brees was the No. 2 quarterback in 2014.

Say what?

PFF's ratings are cumulative, and we can unpack that number a little bit, too. Each play is graded positively or negatively, and that simply gets added together, so Brees gets a bit of a bonus for playing in all 16 games. However, when one delves into advanced stats, we see Brees ranks very highly in their version of passer rating (which eliminates things like drops and throw aways) where he is third behind Rodgers and Romo. He also ranks highly in deep passing (third), accuracy (first) and under pressure (second).

Starting to see the picture?

Maybe I've thrown too many numbers at you, so here they are lined up:

Y/ATT: 11th
Passer Rating: 6th
QBR: 6th
PFF: 2nd

If you average all of those rankings out, it's 6.25.

In a way, it creates a bit of a composite picture of the various trustworthy ways of ranking quarterbacks. It's easy to quibble with or trust one or the other, and it's even easier just to take one one that fits your preconceived notion. However, it's difficult to argue Brees was much better or worse than somewhere around the sixth-best quarterback in the league.

Let's see how he compares with his peers:

Aaron Rodgers (GB)—1.75
Tony Romo (DAL)—2.25
Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)—3.5
Peyton Manning (DEN)—5.5
DREW BREES (NO)—6.25
Andrew Luck (IND)—8.5
Tom Brady (NE)—8.5
Matt Ryan (ATL)—9.25
Philip Rivers (SD)—9.75
Russell Wilson (SEA)—10.75

Not exactly doom and gloom for Brees, huh?

Quibble with the methodology, please. Include any sort of stats you want. Add other metics. Do whatever you want that is objective in any way, and I'm confident you'll find Brees was anywhere between the fourth to the sixth-best quarterback in the league last season.

We can talk about where he's going in the future, which is almost certainly downward. We can talk about where young stars like Luck and Wilson are going, which is certainly upward. We can even add guys like Cam Newton who fared extremely poorly in this exercise (18.75) and point out that he's so good as a runner, he breaks the mold. Wilson climbs the list even higher in that regard with 845 yards rushing last season.

The one piece of context missing is that stats, metrics, rankings, ratings and the like are always dependent on the players around the quarterback. We can try to isolate a player on the field from the people around him (as PFF attempts to do) and we can even adjust for defenses like Football Outsiders does (they rank Brees fourth in their DYAR metric, by the way). But, it's always impossible to really quantify what a player is putting up with or being helped by as coaches scheme around their strengths and against opponent's weaknesses.

The point I made on Wednesday is also applicable here, football is not a chess game, it's a demolition derby.

So, again, we can look at quarterbacks like Wilson, Newton, Rivers and others to point out they didn't have a lot of help, but we also can't simultaneously ignore Brees' numbers simply because he had a little. In fact, it's arguable that once wide receiver Brandin Cooks went down and tight end Jimmy Graham was all Brees could pass to, he had his worst games of the season with an offense that wasn't that much more talented (outside of Graham) than many of the other quarterbacks asked to go it alone.

Maybe we subjectively jockey the positioning a little, but it strains credibility when Brees is suddenly a declining, overpaid, over-the-hill, career over, nothing-to-see-here garbage quarterback in the eyes of so many. It's confirmation bias and echo chamber nonsense of the highest order—from, usually, people who talk infinitely more about football than how much they actually watch and understand about it.

Frankly, it's impossible to truly pretend Brees was anything less than one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL last season.

That portends good things for 2015.

Brees, along with the Saints' win totals, was affected by a terrible defense in 2014. Safety Jairus Bryd was terrible, always out of place and then injured. Linebacker Curtis Lofton was terrible, usually preoccupied with a blocker until making a tackle yards down the field, and then shipped out of town. Safety/Nickel Corner Kenny Vaccaro was terrible and missed almost as many tackles as he made some days. Cameron Jordan wasn't quite terrible, but he didn't live up to his billing either as a top pass rusher.

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Brees and the offense scored 401 points last season, which was good for ninth overall in the NFL. One can certainly argue they could've used some more scoring since this was their worst scoring output since 2010, but their defense gave up 424 points—the only Top 10 team in scoring with a negative scoring differential. Those 424 points given up was the fifth-worst in the entire league!

To fix the defense, the team has jettisoned Lofton and is getting Byrd healthy and with (hopefully) a better understanding of the defense in his second season with the team. They got nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley to take a pay cut and brought in Kevin Williams to beef up the rotation on the defensive front. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson were brought in to help the defensive backfield do the same.

The team also drafted a pass rusher in Hau'oli Kikaha and a cornerback in P.J. Williams that will almost certainly see some burn in 2015.

Huge moves? No, but moves that should help a defense dying on the vine.

Over on the offensive side of things, the team has re-established their run game and balanced out. Much has been said—mostly negative—about the Saints sending Jimmy Graham (Brees' most dynamic target, by far) to Seattle, but they got one of the NFL's best centers in Max Unger. They've also added running back C.J. Spiller, wide receiver Josh Morgan and drafted offensive lineman Andrus Peat.

To me, the moves scream "preparing for life after Brees," but that doesn't mean those moves shouldn't help him, as well. Both Brees and the Saints offense have often been at their best when the run game was strong. Now, it's Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson, but it used to be Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush or Thomas and Darren Sproles. The Saints don't want Brees to have to pass 650 times per season, they just keep backing themselves into that corner knowing he can.

Is Brees set for a huge bounce back in 2015? Probably not, because he's on the wrong side of his career. Yet, much like Brady — who actually didn't play that much worse in 2013 than he did in 2014 — the team around him and game planning just got better. He's likely in for a bit of a boost statistically and in the win total as well—just to satisfy all the QB WINZ!!! people out there slowly driving our overall football discussion deep into a ravine of idiocy.

We may never see the best of Brees again, but we should continue to appreciate the absolutely stellar passing he's still putting on display on a weekly basis.

Editor's Note: We're hosting a one-day $20,000 fantasy baseball league on FanDuel tonight. It's only $10 to join and first place wins $2,000. Enter by 7:05pm ET (today, July 9th). Here's the link.

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