News & Analysis

Is it time for the New Orleans Saints to manage Drew Brees' workload?

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are making one last run at a Super Bowl…again.

What we have known for some time became official after the new league year rolled around as the Saints brought back their best-ever player to start at quarterback again.

Brees is now 41 years old and just re-upped for two years at $50 million, though the second year may be as much about salary cap management as anything else. However, this contract does add a “team friendly” aspect to the deal, giving the Saints increasing flexibility and breathing room as they get ready for what will likely be their last roll of the dice.

With his age, it’s clear he isn’t the player he once was physically, and so it’s worth taking a look at just what kind of player Brees is right now and how likely another Super Bowl run is in a stacked NFL.

Over the past two seasons, Drew Brees has earned an overall PFF grade of 94.8, and he has been as good as any quarterback in the league. But if you limit things to just the past four weeks of each season and into the playoffs, that grade drops 10 points to 82.3. In those games, Brees has more turnover-worthy plays (PFF’s lowest-graded throws) than he does big-time throws. In contrast, his ratio in the other games is almost three to one in favor of big-time throws.

Drew Brees' passing stats: Week 1-13 vs. Week 14-end of playoffs (2018-19)
Stat Week 1-13 Week 14-end of playoffs
PFF passing grade 94.8 82.3
Yards per attempt 8.1 7.6
Passer rating from a clean pocket 125.1 113.0
Passer rating on 10+ yard throws 135.3 113.9
Big-time throw % 4.4% 3.4%
Turnover-worthy play % 1.7% 3.7%
Accuracy plus % 19.1% 16.0%
Uncatchable, inaccurate % 11.8% 13.8%

What you have seen late in the season over the past two years has been backed up in the data. Almost any data point you care to look at has seen a sharp decline late in the year. And just visibly on tape, he hasn’t looked like the same player.

There is some logical sense to a player of his age experiencing fatigue in his arm late in a long season, but what is especially concerning is that it happened last season as well, even though he had a “break” early in the year when his injured thumb saw Teddy Bridgewater start five games in Brees' stead. If this were just a fatigue issue, you would have expected that break to have given his arm the rest needed to still be fresh come December, but we still saw a drop in play.

When the Saints hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs, Brees could only pass for 208 yards despite the fact that the Vikings literally played the game without a recognized slot cornerback on the field while one of the best slot weapons in the game, Michael Thomas, suited up for the Saints. Minnesota’s cornerbacks were ready targets, but Brees was unable to attack them deep, and Taysom Hill connected on the team’s only deep pass (50 yards). Brees averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt and threw an ugly interception.

What’s curious is that although Brees’ arm looks rough late in the year, it is not a year-round problem. Though his average depth of target over the past two seasons is just 7.4 — 31st of 33 quarterbacks over that time — if you limit yourself just to deeper passing, his numbers are excellent. On attempts that traveled 20 or more yards from the line of scrimmage, Brees has the fifth-best grade of any quarterback in the league over that span; he is third in adjusted completion rate and top-10 in passer rating, as well.

So the Saints find themselves in a curious position. They know the quarterback they have in Brees is a perfect fit for their system and by far the best option they have for winning games (however glowing Sean Payton's praise is for Taysom Hill). But they also now have mounting evidence that Drew Brees is not the same quarterback at the end of the season as he is at the start of it, and the games the Saints need to win if they are to hoist another Lombardi Trophy come at the end of the season.

Can they come up with a methodology for preserving Brees’ best play into January football, or will they be looking at another year in which their challenge begins to peter out later in the season as Brees can’t sustain the All-Pro play he had early in the year?

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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