Brees worthy of rock-star status

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Hysteria followed the celebrity quarterback as he strode off the New England Patriots’ practice field Tuesday afternoon and stopped to sign autographs for some awestruck fans along a fence. A young boy in a white, No. 12 Pats jersey held out a Sharpie and pointed to his torso.

“You want me to sign that jersey?” Drew Brees(notes) asked incredulously. “Let me sign your hat instead. You don’t want me to ruin your Brady jersey.”

Drew Brees (R) shares a word with QB counterpart Tom Brady during a Saints-Patriots scrimmage on Tuesday.
(US Presswire)

If Brees, the New Orleans Saints’ sensational passer, received the Tom Brady(notes) treatment during his recent visit to New England, he has last Super Sunday to blame. After years of being understandably overshadowed by Brady and Peyton Manning(notes) – and, to be fair, many other quarterbacks whose physical gifts are far more obvious than his own – Brees has, at least for the moment, turned the Big Two into the Big Three.

With the Pats and Saints conducting joint workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday before facing off in Thursday night’s preseason opener at Gillette Stadium, Brady wasn’t the only iconic passer in line for an enormous contract extension who attracted admiring eyes at every turn.

“It’s fun to watch him out there,” Brady said of Brees Tuesday night. “It’s just kind of cool to see how he operates.”

Heading into his 10th season, and his fifth since joining coach Sean Payton in New Orleans and instantly transforming the culture of a long-struggling franchise, Brees now operates on a level to which few of his contemporaries can relate. In outdueling Manning and the Indianapolis Colts last February to lead the Saints to their first championship, Brees backed up his gaudy stats of recent years and propelled himself into superstardom.

In the flurry that followed, Brees went to Disney World, did Letterman and rode atop a float in The Big Easy’s uproarious victory parade. When he showed up with his linemen at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans’ Warehouse District two nights after the Super Bowl and revealed the words of the pregame cheer that had become a staple of the Saints’ championship season, it was as if Elvis had reappeared at Graceland and belted out a new, pelvic-shaking verse of “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Though Brees may be The King of New Orleans, now and perhaps forever, don’t get the impression he was born into royalty. Like Brady, who rose from fourth-string obscurity to become a three-time Super Bowl champion, Brees is a grinder who earned the undying devotion of his teammates through hard work, humility and a passion for perfection.

“In terms of expectations, his bar is higher than most people can envision,” Payton says. “Winning a championship is something I’m sure he’s dreamed about since entering the league, but it’s not by accident that it happened.”

Says New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes): “What Drew has accomplished is not surprising. He’s very, very deserving of his success. He’s the earliest one there in the morning, and the latest to leave at night. I know a lot of people think he just wakes up in the morning and comes out playing like he does, but they don’t see how hard he grinds. Trust me, this success doesn’t come easy for him.”

Shockey laughs at the recurring specter of teammates who, in the heat of summer, vow to embrace Brees’ exacting routine.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys try to emulate the things he does in the morning,” Shockey says. “They come in at 6 a.m., hit the weight room hard, break down film, put in a full day and then keep working till eight at night. Five weeks into the season, they’re in shambles. They start to tail off one by one.”

Says Brees, smiling: “It’s not like the New Year’s resolution everybody makes where they join the athletic club, go for three months and then stop going.” Yet the quarterback acknowledges that, upon arriving for work, he seldom has company at the team’s facility.

“Put it this way,” he says. “I get my [parking] spot every time.”

It was Brees’ work ethic which attracted Payton when, after taking the Saints’ coaching job following the 2005 season, he was looking for a quarterback to help him turn around a team with a history of failure.

Drew Brees passed for 4,388 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2009.
(David Butler II/US Presswire)
The Big Three

A statistical look at Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning over the past three seasons.

Player (team) QB rating
avg.
Comp.
perc.
Total pass
yards
Total
TDs
Total
Ints
Drew Brees (Saints) 97.6 67.5 13,880 96 46
Peyton Manning (Colts) 97.7 67.1 12,542 91 42
*Tom Brady (Patriots) 106.6 67.2 9,280 78 21
*Brady played one game in 2008 season.

Drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the first pick of the second round in 2001, Brees had a breakthrough season in 2004 and another strong campaign the following year. However, in the ’05 finale he suffered a severe injury to his throwing shoulder (torn labrum, partially torn rotator cuff), and the Chargers, who’d traded for No. 3 overall pick Philip Rivers(notes) two years earlier, allowed their wounded starter to leave via free agency.

Payton took a chance on Brees, who healed more quickly than expected and immediately formed a bond with his young, energetic coach. Payton, one of the league’s most gifted and aggressive play-callers, put a lot on his quarterback, and Brees delivered, leading the Saints to the ’06 NFC championship game and throwing for a league-leading 4,418 yards. Brees finished second in the MVP voting and was selected as the NFC’s starting quarterback in the Pro Bowl.

The big numbers continued in the Big Easy. In ’07 Brees set an NFL single-season record with 440 completions. The following year Brees became the second NFL quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season – he had 5,069, 15 short of Dan Marino’s record – and won the first of two consecutive AP Offensive Player of the Year awards. In ’09 Brees finished second to Manning in the MVP voting, completed more than 70 percent of his passes and threw for 34 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, earning his fourth Pro Bowl selection.

Oh, and in the playoffs, Brees defeated three future Hall of Famers (Kurt Warner(notes), Brett Favre(notes), Manning) and took home Super Bowl MVP honors.

Other than that, he didn’t have an eventful postseason.

Though he has arrived in every sense of the word, Brees has no intention of letting up or allowing his teammates to do the same.

“Last year was amazing,” he says. “But we won’t dwell on it.”

While Brees doesn’t mind being a locker-room killjoy in the name of fighting complacency, he has a knack for exerting his will without alienating teammates, coaches or employers.

“Drew’s got an amazing tact about him,” Payton says. “His teammates follow him. He just gets it. Example: We’re at the White House [on Monday], and there’s the President, and Brees is supposed to present him with a jersey. And he says, ‘Coach, you sure you and [Saints owner Tom Benson] don’t want to present this?’ I said, ‘No, you give the jersey.’ But I love the fact that he asked.”

Whether Benson will give Brees a contract that ranks him with the league’s highest-paid players remains to be seen. In February, ESPN reported that the Saints planned to begin negotiations with Brees, who has two years left on the six-year, $60 million deal he signed in ’06, on a lucrative extension. Six months later, he’s still waiting – as are Manning and Brady, each of whom is heading into the final year of his deal – as the players and teams attempt to navigate their way through an uncertain labor situation.

Brees is a leader in that regard, too. With a potential lockout looming after the 2010 season, the Saints’ quarterback, a three-year member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee, has become a vocal advocate for the union’s position.

That’s another area in which he and Brady, the Patriots’ alternate player representative, are simpatico.

“We understand that we’re kind of in the same position,” Brees says. “Tom Brady is going to go down in history as one of the greatest ever to play this game, so his voice means something. I know what people in the past sacrificed to get us some of the things we enjoy as players, and I think we have a responsibility to speak out and use our platform to try to keep our game great.”

And make no mistake – when Brees stands on his figurative platform, the only current NFL players he’s not looking down upon are named Tom and Peyton.

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 12, 2010