The case for Drew Brees being a better QB than Peyton Manning

Drew Brees will almost certainly break Peyton Manning’s all-time passing record in Peyton Manning’s hometown.

It will be a true celebration in a city famous for parties if and when the Saints legend notches 201 passing yards, eclipsing Manning’s career yardage record against Washington on Monday night in New Orleans.

There will likely be a debate about where Brees ranks all time. These days, Tom Brady is considered tops, with plenty of good reason. So where does Brees belong in relation to Manning.

Me? I’ll take Brees.

All respect to both passers, as this is like choosing between Mozart and Beethoven. The music is singular either way.

But give me Brees.

Drew Brees is 201 yards short of breaking Peyton Manning's record as the all-time NFL leader in passing yards. (Getty Images)
Drew Brees is 201 yards short of breaking Peyton Manning’s record as the all-time NFL leader in passing yards. (Getty Images)

Yes, Manning has two Super Bowl victories and four Super Bowl appearances. He has two Hall of Fame careers — one in Indianapolis and one in Denver.

Still, give me Brees.

Statistically, Brees has more completions and holds a higher passer rating than Manning. He is still in top form, arguably the best quarterback on the planet at this very moment. He already has three of the top five most accurate seasons in NFL history, and he’s currently on pace to beat his record, set in 2017, this year. This is not Johnny Unitas in San Diego, not a tired legend limping to the finish line. He has a shot at Manning’s career touchdown record (539), which is 43 scores ahead as of now. (Brady is one touchdown ahead of Brees.)

Drew Brees now is as good as Drew Brees ever.

Brees has done this without the weapons that Manning traditionally had. Brees has had no Marvin Harrison, no Reggie Wayne, no Dallas Clark. He had Hall of Fame talent in LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates helping him in San Diego, but not so much in New Orleans for the bulk of his career. Deuce McAllister was good, but he was no Edgerrin James. Only very recently, with the addition of Alvin Kamara and the emergence of Mark Ingram, has he had a truly potent backfield. Arguably his most dangerous weapon at tight end was Jimmy Graham, who was traded. On defense, it’s a similar story. Manning had Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Bob Sanders. (His defense in Denver was arguably even better.) Brees had standout defenders like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but no superstars.

Now, a look at the postseason. Both are one game over .500. Brees is 7-6, Manning 14-13. Brees has a higher completion percentage (65.9 to 63.2) and a higher passer rating (100.7 to 87.4). Manning has thrown nearly one interception per playoff game (25 picks in 27 games) while Brees has thrown only nine interceptions in 13 games. And all this despite Brees throwing an average of 8.2 adjusted yards per attempt compared to Manning’s 6.8.

The two met in one Super Bowl, in 2010, and the Saints won that. Brees, with 32 completions (out of 39 attempts), two touchdowns and no interceptions, was named MVP.

There’s another, smaller part of this discussion: Manning’s iconic reputation. He is the son of football royalty (in New Orleans no less) and people knew his name when he first set foot on Tennessee’s campus. He has a terrific way with the media and with TV cameras, and he’s still a fixture on NFL Sundays as a commercial pitchman. We all know the jingles. We all know the “Saturday Night Live” skit where Manning chucks passes at helpless kids. He is perhaps the greatest ambassador in pro football history. And he had a built-in AFC rival in Brady. The two of them fed off each other, with Brady as the debonair GQ guy and Manning as the ingenious everyman.

Brees has always had less of that spotlight. He was overlooked in his own state of Texas coming out of high school. He toiled away at Purdue, breaking records without a constant national TV audience watching. He played in two NFL markets that had never had dominant teams. He shone brightly during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, yet his charisma was always understated. There has never been idle gossip about what Brees will wear before the game or what he’ll say afterward. He just calls the plays, licks his fingertips, and throws darts. He is Steve Nash: more imposing in stats than in stature. Manning comes to mind more easily when the “greatest ever” debate starts. To some extent, Brees has been overshadowed.

Finally there is the tried and true “system” argument. At least some credit for Brees’ success has been given to Joe Tiller (Purdue), Marty Schottenheimer (Chargers), and Sean Payton (Saints). Few, however, think Phil Fulmer, Tony Dungy or Gary Kubiak had a large amount to do with Manning’s success. Manning is the system.

Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton show off the spoils of victory after defeating the Colts – led by Peyton Manning – in Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. (Getty Images)
Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton show off the spoils of victory after defeating the Colts – led by Peyton Manning – in Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. (Getty Images)

But Brees is the system too, in his own way. “It’s in the way he takes time talking to each wide receiver and how he wants them to run,” says Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who has also been a teammate of Brady. “The way he’s very, very approachable. He’ll come visit your kids. He’s that kind of person. He takes time to know a receiver, and talk to them as people.”

Then, within each game, there is the precision that only a few passers have. He has the gift of “anticipating you being open,” in Watson’s words. Manning had that too, of course, but it’s not something that Sean Payton or any other coach can ensure. Perhaps this is why Brees has elevated the Marques Colston’s and Lance Moore’s of the world. “I think that’s why a lot of young guys come in and play right away,” says Saints receiver Michael Thomas. “Behind center, he knows what he wants.”

Watson puts it simply: “You can tell when he throws the ball to you that he’s an elite quarterback. It’s the right velocity at the right spot.”

The veteran won’t rank Brees against the others, but Watson will say this: “Within the football realm, if you go ask the defensive coordinator, those three guys [Brady, Manning, Brees] will all get similar respect. When you talk to DBs, they would want to play Drew less.”

In most circles, the greatest quarterback label is settled with one statistic: Super Bowl victories. That sets Tom Brady and Joe Montana apart. That also sets Dan Marino back, even though some would call the former Dolphin the greatest to ever throw a football.

So for some it comes down to this: Manning won a title in two cities and Brees has only one ring in one Super Bowl appearance. If you look at everything, though, the choice is much tougher. If you look at everything, the case for Brees is more compelling.

And there’s this fact, which we’ll be reminded of Monday and for the rest of the season:

Drew Brees is not yet done.

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