Dubai: The Drew Brees era with the New Orleans Saints — marked by a Super Bowl celebration, raucous record-setting nights in the rebuilt Superdome and the undersized quarterback’s outsize role in a historic city’s rebirth — has ended.
Brees, the NFL’s leader in career completions and yards passing, has decided to retire after 20 NFL seasons, including his last 15 with New Orleans.
“Til the very end I exhausted myself to give everything to the Saints organisation, my team and the great city of New Orleans,” Brees said in social media post on Sunday, 15 years to the day after he signed with the Saints.
“We shared some amazing moments together, many of which are emblazoned in our hearts and minds and will forever be a part of us,” Brees continued. “I am only retiring from football. I am not retiring from New Orleans. This is not goodbye.”
The post also included a short video in which his four young children — the three boys wearing No. 9 Saints jerseys — said: “Our dad is finally going to retire so he can spend more time with us.”
The decision comes after the 42-year-old quarterback won nine of 12 regular-season starts while completing 70.5 per cent of his passes in 2020, and then won a wild card round play-off game before New Orleans’ season ended with a divisional-round loss to eventual Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brees missed four games this season with multiple fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. It marked the second straight season Brees had to miss part of a season with an injury after missing just one game because of injury in the previous 13. In 2019, Brees missed five games because of a thumb injury on his throwing hand that required surgery.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Brees had plenty of other injuries or ailments during his Saints tenure, but willed himself to play through them whenever possible.
“Over the years his durability and availability is quite amazing. I can recall so many of these different injuries,” Payton said. “He’s as courageous and as tough a player as I’ve ever been around.”
Brees is the NFL’s all-time leader in yards passing with 80,358, although that mark will be under threat next season by 44-year-old Tom Brady, who has 79,204 career yards passing. Brees’ 571 career touchdown passes rank second behind Brady’s 581.
Brees had dropped hints about his intentions, saying he considered himself to be on “borrowed time”. After his final game, he returned to the Superdome field in street clothes, embraced his wife, Brittany, and played catch with his children for nearly two hours. When Brady saw them on his way to the Tampa Bay bus, he stopped, chatted, threw passes to Brees children and hugged Brees before departing.
Still, Brees declined to confirm his plans until now, even throwing many for a loop when a video of one of his recent workouts appeared on social media.
“Congrats my friend on an incredible career,” Brady said in a social media post on Sunday. “Thank you for the inspiration and dedication on and off the field! Look forward to seeing what’s next.”
The Saints currently have one quarterback under contract: Taysom Hill, who went 3-1 as a starter during Brees absence in 2020. New Orleans are also expected to pursue another veteran QB to compete for a starting job, including free agent Jameis Winston, who spent 2020 as a Saints reserve.
Brees’ retirement brings an end to a career that came to embody resilience and renewal on multiple levels.
His most prolific seasons came after he underwent major reconstructive surgery in early 2006 to repair a career-threatening throwing shoulder injury.
He joined the Saints shortly after, at a time when New Orleans was still coping with widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. When Brees moved to New Orleans, he bought and renovated a historic home in the city’s Uptown neighbourhood, just a block away from Audubon Park.
The storm had forced the Saints to play all of their 2005 games outside New Orleans, and the Saints finished that season 3-13.
“When I was hired by the Saints as head coach in 2006, the very first goal was to establish a functional and winning culture,” Payton said. “It was vital to know what we were looking for in a player, talent, work ethic, make-up, intelligence and leadership are all qualities we found in Drew Brees. We also found a player with a burning desire to win.”
With Payton calling plays and Brees executing them, the Saints won 10 regular-season games in 2006, and then won a divisional-round play-off game in a rebuilt Superdome — a storybook run that didn’t end until a loss in Chicago in New Orleans’ first ever NFC championship game. That would be the first of nine seasons in which Brees led the Saints to the play-offs.
“Drew is so much more valuable than all the records, awards and accolades that he amassed,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said. “Drew came to represent the resolve, passion and drive that resonates not only with Saints fans and football fans, but our entire community.”
The franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance and championship came in the 2009 season, with Brees, selected as the game’s MVP, memorably celebrating with first child Baylen in his arms as confetti floated around them.
Brees’ 32 completions (on 39 attempts) tied a Super Bowl record, just one of numerous times the 6ft 1in quarterback, drafted by the San Diego Chargers out of Purdue in the beginning of the second round of the 2001 draft, etched his name in NFL record books.
Indeed, the hallmarks of Brees’ career have been his decision-making, timing and accuracy.
Brees not only holds the NFL’s single-season record for completion rate at 74.4 per cent in 2018, but also holds the second-highest mark at 74.3 in 2019 and third-highest at 72 in 2017.
His 70.5 per cent rate in 2020 ranked ninth all time, giving Brees six of the top nine season completion rates in NFL history.
Payton’s offences were more passing oriented in some seasons than others for a variety of reasons related to personnel, the types of defences the Saints faced and the way games played out.
But when Brees had to throw, he piled up yardage whether the Saints were a play-off team or not.
Brees eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark in five seasons, with his career-best 5,476 yards coming in 2011. That mark ranks second all time, one yard behind Peyton Manning’s 5,477 yards with Denver in 2013. Brees’ five 5,000-yard seasons all rank in the top 11 all time.
Brees also has been the unquestioned face of the franchise and leader in the locker room throughout his time in New Orleans. Teammates have often remarked that Brees was usually the first player to arrive at the team’s training headquarters and last to leave.
Payton often spoke of his collaborative relationship with Brees in formulating the offensive game plan and routinely letting Brees call his own plays, particularly during hurry-up drives.
“Since I’ve been here Drew has been nothing but a good teammate, a good guy, great leader, and I respect him so much in all facets of his life,” said centre Erik McCoy, a two-year pro who grew up watching Brees and wound up snapping him the ball the past two seasons.
“The way that he came into work every day. He was always locked in. He was always on point. He was always sharp. I feel like that has kind of moulded me.”
While Brees was popular in San Diego during his first five NFL seasons, he became synonymous with New Orleans after signing with the Saints. He participated in marketing campaigns for the city’s tourism industry, professed his affection for the community in countless interviews, talked up the city’s renowned restaurant scene and was a celebrity rider in Mardi Gras parades. Between his Brees Dream foundation and his own personal work, Brees has donated or committed more than $35 million to charitable causes in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, according to his marketing agent, Chris Stuart.
“No one has ever scored higher as far as their combination of athletic achievement and involvement in a community,” said political pundit, Louisiana native and New Orleans resident James Carville, asserting that Brees is to New Orleans what Ted Williams was to Boston and Michael Jordan to Chicago. “In more ways than one, he’s arguably the most significant New Orleanian of the 21st century.”