Drew Brees retires after 20 seasons, as the all-time leading passer in NFL history

Drew Brees announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback made the announcement on Instagram with some help from his kids.

Brees’ unlikely path to all-time passing leader

Brees wasn’t widely recruited before he went to Purdue. He fell to the second round of the draft because he wasn’t considered tall enough by NFL standards. After three seasons, the San Diego Chargers drafted Philip Rivers to replace him. When the New Orleans Saints signed Brees, he was coming off a shoulder injury that was so bad, his NFL future was in doubt.

By the end, Brees had rewritten the NFL record books, paved the way for quarterbacks who weren’t considered tall enough for many NFL teams, played a big role in saving the Saints in New Orleans and turned a perennial losing team into a Super Bowl champion.

Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader with 80,358 career passing yards, retired after 20 seasons in the NFL. Along the way he conquered long odds time after time to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Tom Brady is barely ahead of Brees in career touchdowns and not far behind in career passing yards, and he’s sure to pass Brees in the latter category next season. But Brees’ legacy is set, especially in New Orleans.

Drew Brees beat long odds

Brees started his career with the Chargers and for the first few years he didn’t look like one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. That’s what led the Chargers to draft Rivers in the first round of the 2004 draft, after Brees’ third season.

Brees kept Rivers on the bench for a couple years. He made a Pro Bowl in 2004. The Chargers were set to face a tough decision after the 2005 season with Brees set to be a free agent, but Brees dislocated his right throwing shoulder in the season finale. He tore his labrum and suffered a partial tear of the rotator cuff. There were questions if he’d ever be an effective quarterback again. The Miami Dolphins, with Nick Saban as head coach, famously passed on signing him due to the shoulder injury.

Brees lasted 15 more years. The Saints will always be grateful for that.

When Brees signed with the Saints, the franchise had just one playoff win in its history. At the end of the 2005 season, the Saints were looking into moving to San Antonio. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans hard in 2005, further clouding the future of the franchise. When Brees signed, he immediately immersed himself in the community and the Katrina recovery efforts. And on the field, Brees helped save the Saints in New Orleans.

The Saints started winning when Brees got there. He took the Saints to an NFC championship game in his second season there. Then the Saints franchise, and the perception of it, changed forever during the 2009 season.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to his family and fans after his final NFL game, a playoff loss to the Buccaneers. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to his family and fans after his final NFL game, a playoff loss to the Buccaneers. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Brees brings New Orleans a Super Bowl

In 2009, the Saints went 13-3 and Brees had a great season. They beat the Minnesota Vikings in a thrilling NFC championship game and then knocked off the Indianapolis Colts to win Super Bowl XLIV. Brees was named Super Bowl MVP.

Brees put up some great numbers over the next decade. He had five 5,000-yard seasons, and held the single-season passing yardage record until 2013 when Peyton Manning broke it. Brees led the NFL in passing seven times. He made 13 Pro Bowls. He broke records for career passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Brees led another Saints revitalization late in his career. The Saints were one of the best teams in the NFL over each of Brees’ final four seasons but couldn’t get back to a Super Bowl, suffering some of the most heartbreaking losses in NFL playoff history along the way. Brees’ final game was a playoff loss to Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brees, playing just a few weeks after breaking 11 ribs, threw three interceptions. His final NFL pass was deflected and intercepted.

Brees agreed to take a broadcasting job with NBC whenever his playing career was over. He’ll move into that role leaving behind a historic NFL legacy. He and the Saints are practically synonymous as he retires. Brees changed how NFL teams view quarterbacks who stand six feet tall or less, paving the way for players like Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. His 80,358 career yards and 571 career touchdowns will be near the top of the NFL’s all-time list for a long time.

And in five years, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be knocking on Brees’ door.

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