When quarterback Drew Brees announced he was foregoing retirement and returning for his 20th season in February, he likely envisioned a much different year in more ways than one. Now, as the New Orleans Saints prepare to host their first prime time game of the season, it’ll be in a fanless Superdome and coming off a 1-1 start.
It’s not so much the record that’s concerning. In the past nine seasons, New Orleans has started its season with at least one loss. It’s that Brees, well, doesn’t look like Brees.
There were many storylines in the Saints’ season-opening game against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 34-23 win was overshadowed by talk of the Buccaneers starting 0-1 and glossed over Brees’ 96.5 passer rating, which was his lowest in Week 1 since 2015. Brees’ woes became more clear in Week 2 during a Monday Night Football game against the Las Vegas Raiders. He regressed to a 91.1 passer rating in the 34-24 loss.
Brees simply isn’t throwing the ball well enough or far enough. Brees has averaged 4.82 air yards, which is his lowest through two games. It’s almost the lowest by any quarterback through two games since Brett Favre’s 2009 season. This was even more apparent against the Raiders when only 33% of his passing yards came through the air, for his lowest single-game percentage in three years, and he was 5-of-10 passing 10-plus yards downfield.
Brees, himself, scoffs at these statistics. He’s less concerned about his air yards than he is with win totals, as he should be, but when he cannot be effective downfield and relies almost solely on check-down passes, wins are going to be hard to come by, especially against tougher teams. Brees needs to be more effective downfield in Week 3.
As The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi pointed out earlier this week, Brees has thrown the ball 68 times, and of those 68 passes, only seven have traveled over 10-or-more yards for just two completions.
"Well, my job is to execute the offense. ... My job's not to have the most air yards or throw the ball down the field most or anything like that," Brees said after the Monday loss, via ESPN. "I think I've always evaluated myself on being a great decision-maker. And so, at the end of the day, I'll throw the ball to the open guy, move the ball down the field, score points, help us win football games.”
It doesn’t help that Brees is missing his top target in wide receiver Michael Thomas, and while Brees admits this offense isn’t currently “in sync,” things will need to change quickly if he wants to maximize his closing window.
The Saints will face the NFL’s best offense during Sunday Night Football. The Green Bay Packers have the league’s best offense and one of the better overall defenses. However, Green Bay’s pass defense is lagging, which gives Brees an advantage if he can hit on long balls. Brees will need to attack more downfield against a team that has allowed an average of 233 passing yards so far this season. Green Bay has surrendered 12.9 yards per completion to rank 29th in the NFL.
While it’s clear that Brees doesn’t throw the deep ball like other top-tier quarterbacks, including Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, he needs to utilize the weapons he does have; Michael Thomas sat out practice again Thursday and it seems unlikely he’ll return as soon as this weekend. Emmanuel Sanders, who joined the Saints this offseason after splitting time in 2019 between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, has only 33 yards after playing 63% of New Orleans’ snaps.
Brees doesn’t need to turn into a deep passer to begin trending upward, but if he wants to show his age isn’t catching up with him he needs to move the offense downfield with more than short passes. In turn, Sanders and tight end Jared Cook can’t drop makeable catches and the Saints’ defense needs to get off the field and give more time for Brees to execute—they were on the field about 15 minutes less than the Raiders in Week 2.
There are going to be fewer excuses going forward if Brees continues to look uncomfortable in the pocket.