SPORTS | Adieu, Drew

Brees transformed Saints, influence to carry on

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.


 

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Todd Rosenberg via AP

If reports are to be believed, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees — the greatest player in franchise history — is hanging up his helmet and pads for good. It’s the end of the best era of Saints football.

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For the last 15 years, Brees has been New Orleans’ field general, a transformational figure who joined the team when the city and the franchise were among the lowest points in their history. Brees made New Orleans, and the Saints, winners. There’s no more proof of that than the Vince Lombardi Trophy on display in the lobby of the team’s headquarters.

Just after the last preseason game of the 2005 season, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. That season the Saints played “home” games in Baton Rouge, San Antonio and New York City. As the nomad franchise went 3–13, the Big Easy was questioned as a viable NFL city.

With the NFL and the State of Louisiana’s backing, the Superdome became a focal point of the city’s resurrection. Plans were made for the stadium — which had been used as a shelter of last resort before having parts of its roof blown away and being flooded — to be renovated and host a late September matchup with the archrival Atlanta Falcons.

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As the Dome was being rebuilt, so, too, were its main tenants. The Saints hired Head Coach Sean Payton, who chose to sign Brees over picking highly touted USC quarterback Matt Leinart. The move wasn’t a guaranteed success. In fact, the Saints were the only team in the NFL to take a chance on the first pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. The Miami Dolphins, the team Brees preferred to sign with, didn’t think he could properly recover from arthroscopic surgery, performed by Dr. James Andrews, to repair the torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The Dolphins instead traded for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was recovering from a serious knee injury.

That one decision changed professional and college football.

Brees signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the Saints on March 14, 2006, and immediately changed the perception of the Saints, leading them to their first NFC Championship. Miami Head Coach Nick Saban, frustrated in the NFL, left the Dolphins after the 2006 season to become the head coach at the University of Alabama, where he has won multiple National Championships.

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Since coming to NOLA, Brees has led the Saints to three NFC Championship games (2006, 2009 and 2018), a 31–17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, and nine playoff appearances and division titles. Along the way he collected several NFL and team records and accolades and is regarded as one of the best passers in league history and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Entering the 2020 NFL Playoffs, Brees holds the NFL records for career pass completions (7,142), career completion percentage (67.7%), career passing yards (80,358), consecutive games with a touchdown pass (54), single-season completion percentage (74.4%), single game completion percentage (96.7%), and 12 consecutive seasons with at least 4,000 passing yards. He is also second in career touchdown passes (571) and career pass attempts (10,551). He has led the NFL in passing yards a record seven times and touchdowns a record-tying four times. Amazingly, his five, 5,000-yard seasons are more than all other quarterbacks’ 5,000-yard seasons combined (4).

Brees has been rewarded with 13 Pro Bowl appearances, the 2006 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2010, and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2008 and 2011.

As this was written before the playoffs began, he may add more laurels.

A new era is on the horizon for the Black & Gold, but that doesn’t mean Brees’ influence on the team will be gone. Nothing is more symbolic of the effect Brees has had on the franchise and the city than the stage upon which he plays. The Superdome, which has sold out every game since 2006, has undergone three, multimillion-dollar renovations — $376 million in 2006, $40 million in 2016, $450 million to be completed in 2021 — that have transformed the stadium from nearly being abandoned in the early part of the century in favor of a more modern facility into again being one of the world’s most iconic and comfortable places to experience a game or special event. These renovations will keep the Saints in the Superdome until 2035, and the team has an option to extend that to 2055. Without Brees, it’s unlikely that that would be the case.

For all of these reasons, I think it’s fair to refer to our Superdome as, “The House That Drew Built.”

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