It’s January in Orlando and, on the vast Disney property that has invaded this landscape, some of the NFL’s biggest stars are behaving like children seeing nearby Magic Kingdom for the first time. The mood is jovial, the end-of-term feel palpable. Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, is enjoying the warm Florida weather just as much as the next man. Yet his welcoming smile and laidback demeanour belie the distraction that comes with wishing he was elsewhere.
Sure, the climes and trappings of the Sunshine State are fun, but the veteran’s mind is in the Lone Star State. He knows full well the real show is taking place in Houston next week. But while the New England Patriots and, most annoyingly, the Saints’ arch-rival Atlanta Falcons are gearing up for Super Bowl LI, Brees is at the NFL’s yearly exhibition celebrating the season’s great and good.
And for all another 5,000-yard campaign earning his place at the top table is cause for satisfaction, he has long since passed the point of having his insatiable thirst quenched by personal accolades. His barometer for success is simple: Super Bowls. So as the sun beats down on a head betraying the signs of his advancing years, Brees chats to Gridiron knowing he’d much rather be discussing the Saints and their chances of victory at NRG Stadium.
“I don’t want to be here at the Pro Bowl,” he admits. “I want to be playing in and winning another Super Bowl. Even when you win one, it just makes you want to go and win another one.”
The wait since his glorious date with destiny has been long.
By the time we reach August, by which point the NFL’s clock has ticked sufficiently for his feelings to switch from aggravation to anticipation, it is nearly seven-and-a-half years since Brees stood atop a podium at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, lifting the trophy every player craves with the footballing world at his feet.
Victory on that night, a 31-17 success over the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts, was extra sweet, coming as it did on the coattails of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating sweep through the New Orleans. Yet for all its impact on the city was immeasurably significant, it felt equally seismic for the NFL.
Brees, having been the game’s best signal-caller in a year where Tom Brady and Manning were seemingly in their prime, had outduelled the latter on the biggest stage. The torch had been passed, the coronation signalling a long and illustrious reign at the top. King Drew had arrived.
Except it really has not worked out that way.
The individual accolades have been plentiful. Since that campaign, Brees has accrued a ridiculous four 5,000-yard seasons, meaning he holds five of the nine that exist in the league’s history. Yet due to the combination of some bad luck, dreadful defenses and Bountygate, the quarterback’s ring collection is no bigger now than then. Meanwhile, Brady is two titles further forward, Manning one, and an array of passers from Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson to Joe Flacco have also hoisted the Lombardi.
More disturbing is New Orleans’ current standing in the NFL. Having largely challenged at the business end since that momentous night, the more recent past has seen the Saints slip into irrelevance. So much so that they enter this campaign, with Brees approaching his 39th birthday, on the back of three successive 7-9 years.
Not that their leader is giving up.
“I feel like we have all the right pieces, now we have to put it all together,” Brees explains. “Everyone is optimistic at the beginning of the year. There are 32 teams who think that this could be their year. I think we’re very close. I’m excited about the offseason acquisitions we’ve made – I feel very good about where we’re at. You want to have that confidence but you also earn that.”
The one obvious factor in New Orleans’ favour is the man speaking. Whatever the Saints’ defensive frailties, Sean Payton’s men are often looked upon as dangerous darkhorses. A right earned by Brees and his outstanding production since joining the Saints in 2006 after being deemed surplus to requirements by the San Diego Chargers as he fought back from a serious shoulder injury.
The 38-year-old does not boast the strongest arm in the NFL, nor will he wow you with his size and stature at 6ft (barely) and 209lbs. But he is extremely accurate, rarely makes a bad decision with the football and is a true student of the game who has seen everything an NFL defense and season can throw at him.
“You win games with your preparation,” Brees stresses. “You build a foundation during training camp that allows you to go out and accomplish your goals during the season. You want to be ascending throughout the season, you want to be continuing to get better and make it to the playoffs as a team that feels like you can make a run at it. That is confidence and momentum.
“That doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly in the season. You have to anticipate that there are going to be challenges; you will have injuries from time to time, guys stepping in and stepping up to play for you. At the end of the day, we have to create a great sense of urgency right now. Each and every day is so valuable to take the next step.”
If the last few seasons have taught New Orleans anything, it’s that a great quarterback alone won’t win Super Bowls.
Brees needs help and the Saints spent the offseason delivering some, most notably through the recruitment of Minnesota Vikings running-back Adrian Peterson. ‘All Day’ is sure to join Brees in the Hall of Fame someday, but he’s teaming up with him in The Big Easy for one reason: a place in the Super Bowl Club. “Drew is the ultimate competitor,” Peterson concludes. “He is relentless and he hates making mistakes. Drew is a great leader of men and a heck of a player. When I came here, within a day or two, I was able to see why he is a Hall of Fame quarterback and why he has been dominating for a decade plus. It was easy to see because of his work ethic.”
Game recognises game, as the kids say. “I’ve been very impressed with Peterson and his presence,” says Brees, who has not dipped below 4,000 passing yards in a year since 2005. “He just has a presence about him and there is a confidence level there.
“We have all been fans of him from afar and he has wowed us many times with some of those spectacular runs. He is one of the few people who you believe could score on every carry. He has that type of explosive ability, and he is a guy who is 32 years of age which, for a running back, is getting up there in age. But he doesn’t look like he has lost his step and he has gotten better every day he has been here. He belongs and with Mark Ingram, who has done a great job at running back the last few years, those two as a one-two punch will be very formidable.”
It wasn’t all good news for Brees this summer. For all Peterson and rookie ‘back Alvin Kamara bolstered the ranks, there was a significant outgoing as 1,000-yard receiver Brandin Cooks was traded to New England. The move may have been a shock to the system, but Brees has been here before. It was only two years ago that tight end Jimmy Graham, his security blanket and favourite target, was similarly offloaded to Seattle.
Ever the veteran, Brees – as excitable in year 17 as his rookie campaign – has long since learnt to accentuate the positives. “It’s always exciting for me because every year is different and you have to build the chemistry of that team each year,” Brees admits. “In most cases, you will have some of the same faces from years past but, in many cases, you have new players.
“Losing a guy like Brandin Cooks was tough because I love Brandin. Not only is he a great teammate, he’s a great friend. But then you have free agents that you have brought onto your team, you have new draft picks that you have brought onto your team, so you may have 30 or 40 new guys, that you are trying to assimilate into your team, your philosophy and your system. Each year it is building and rebuilding the foundation that makes you successful.”
Cooks is a rarity who, in moving from Brees to Brady, might have actually upgraded. Yet there aren’t many who can say the same, for – even as Father Time closes in – Brees remains among the NFL’s elite. “It’s a great feeling to play with a future Hall of Famer,” stresses wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
Head coach Sean Payton adds: “I feel like Drew is one of those quarterbacks who gives you a chance each week. His preparation and leadership is hard to measure.”
Even as the years tick on, Brees remains fiercely competitive and a total perfectionist. During a training camp practice in early August, the superstar passer misses a downfield bomb to Ginn. Rather than shrug it off as a summer mishap, Brees is furious with himself and slams his helmet to the ground in anger, much to Gridiron’s surprise. “Every pass matters and every pass is important,” he admits. “That’s why I treat every practice like a game. There is still that competitive edge where you want every rep to be really sharp and good. And when it’s not, you get upset.”
While that outburst was noteworthy during a hot and steamy practice in New Orleans, it was nothing new to Brees’ teammates. “Drew is so passionate and he always wants to get things right,” Ginn admits. “But he’s going to come right back on the next play. That’s what you need from your quarterback.”
Running back Mark Ingram adds: “Drew holds himself to a high standard. If he doesn’t call the right protection or make the right throw, he will get very mad with himself and can be seen throwing his helmet on the ground.
“He never really yells at his teammates – he gets really mad at himself but never takes it out on his teammates. I really respect him for that because you will see some quarterbacks around the league who get in one of their player’s faces, but Drew never really does that. You never want to disappoint or let him down – we fight hard for him because he is such a great leader and teammate for us.”
The determination and anger is real. Brees knows that each throw, be it at practice or when the lights are on, is another step on a journey that will end in Canton, Ohio with him stood at another podium in a gold jacket.
Not that those thoughts currently occupy his mind.
For now, he is focused on a journey within his overall journey, one with two polar-opposite potential destinations: the sunshine of Florida or the sub-zero temperatures of Minneapolis. It’s a no-brainer; Brees would take the latter every time…
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE