NEW ORLEANS — Ever since Drew Brees arrived in the Big Easy, he’s made playing quarterback in the NFL look easy.
Brees has 27,698 yards passing since arriving in New Orleans in 2006, more than any other NFL quarterback during that span.
Before that, though, he had never thrown for as many as 4,000 yards in a season, and spent much of his first five years in the NFL looking over his shoulder in San Diego.
“We had experienced success in San Diego in my last two years there, but I just never got the feeling that everybody there was all in with me,” Brees recalled this week as he prepared for Monday night’s meeting with Atlanta.
Brees now believes he needed what Matt Ryan has had since being drafted by the Falcons in 2008 — the full and unwavering support of not just his head coach, but the entire organization.
Brees found that in New Orleans, which in the months after Hurricane Katrina needed someone like him — someone with something to prove — as much as he needed a team that believed he could be the cornerstone of its success.
“It was nice to … walk into an organization where I just got the feeling like everybody believed in me,” Brees said. “Sometimes that’s all you need. All you need is somebody to believe in you and then, obviously, my mindset was I’m not going to let these guys down. They have a lot invested in me, so I want to prove them right.”
He’s certainly done that.
Brees has thrown for no fewer than 4,388 yards in a single season with New Orleans. In 2008, he threatened Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season yards passing record of 5,084, finishing with 5,069. In 2009, Brees set an NFL record for single-season completion percentage with 70.6 while leading the Saints to their first Super Bowl, in which Brees was selected MVP.
This season, Brees is completing 71.5 percent of his passes, threatening his own record, and with two games left is only 305 yards passing away from breaking Marino’s mark.
“He’s operating at a level that we probably haven’t seen,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
While Ryan is not quite operating on Brees’ level, he has done just what Atlanta needed lately to keep New Orleans from running away with the NFC South.
Ryan passed for 320 yards in a win at Carolina two weeks ago. In a lopsided victory over Jacksonville, he completed 73 percent of his passes (19 of 26) for 224 yards.
“We’ve had opportunities to make plays the entire year, but we’ve made them the last couple of weeks,” Ryan said. “We’ve had a better sense of urgency. I think everybody’s locked in during our meetings, during our practice, really during the games, too. We’re at that point of the year where there’s not a whole lot more time. It’s time to start making those plays and I think guys are taking advantage of that.”
If the Falcons pull out a win, they’ll clinch a wild card and remain in the hunt to defend their NFC South title. The Saints would wrap up their second division crown in three seasons if they win.
Oddsmakers have made the Saints 7-point favorites, which is understandable, given that Brees is in the midst of one of the greatest seasons an NFL quarterback has ever had.
In reflecting on his remarkable run in New Orleans, Brees was quick to give much credit to coach Sean Payton.
“He brought out a confidence in me that I didn’t have before,” Brees said of Payton. “I’ve always been a really confident guy, but I think there were certain things that might not have ever come out unless I was with him.
“Obviously this (offensive) system allows us to do some pretty cool stuff,” Brees continued. “We’ve got a lot of great skill position players that you just get the ball in their hands, they can do something special with it. And an offensive line that has been one of the most consistent in the league, I believe, over the past six years, even though there have been some different faces.”
Payton never set out specifically to build up Brees’ confidence. The Saints coach believed Brees was the quarterback he wanted early in free agency of 2006 and was more concerned about Brees having confidence in the direction of the franchise.
“When you’re in this profession as a coach, you just hope you have a chance to coach someone like Drew Brees, and I as a head coach and someone who’s involved offensively recognize that that doesn’t happen for everyone,” Payton said.
“He has done the same thing for me without even knowing, giving me more confidence than maybe I ever thought I had as a coach and someone who calls plays,” Payton continued. “He’s done that for a lot of players on this team and a lot of other coaches on this team. He inspires you. If you have a chance to do this for a living and have a chance to coach someone like him, then you’re very fortunate.”