The news about Drew Brees is unsurprising. At 42, after 20 years quarterbacking the Saints and Chargers, he announced his retirement Sunday afternoon. Actually, he didn’t announce it—his four children did, in a cute Instagram post at 5:09 p.m. ET, eight weeks after his last NFL game. This morning, he announced he’ll be joining NBC Sports as an NFL analyst.
The newsy part of the Brees retirement: The Saints, assuming they can sign Jameis Winston (likely), will bring Winston and Taysom Hill to a training-camp competition for the starting job, and may the best quarterback win. Barring a surprise, that’s how New Orleans will enter the season—with Winston or Hill the starting quarterback. (Could Russell Wilson, who has listed the Saints as a desirable destination if Seattle trades him, enter the derby? Yes, of course, but there’s no indication the Seahawks will put their franchise quarterback on the block.) The Saints have a couple of moves left before they have to be under the league’s $182.5-million cap figure, but that will happen by Wednesday.
Brees leaves after an extraordinary career as a football player and humanitarian. If you doubt the humanitarian part, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’d be wrong. I’ll get to that. But the 32nd pick in the draft 20 years ago rose from being replaced by Philip Rivers in San Diego and being flunked on his free-agent physical by the Dolphins in 2006 to signing with moribund New Orleans 15 years ago Sunday . . . and going on to throw for more yards than any player in NFL history.
Brees the player, at 6 feet in heels, was great enough. But it’s entirely possible that no player has meant as much to a city and a state as Brees meant to New Orleans and Louisiana, arriving when the region was irretrievably wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, when a third of the populace had moved away because of the ruination of the area. A month after Brees signed with the Saints in free agency, mayor Ray Nagin said he was hoping the Saints would stay for at least one year so the city didn’t completely lose hope that it could survive. I will never forget riding in the black car with first-round pick Reggie Bush from the airport to the Saints’ facility the day he’d been drafted in the first round. Bush stared out of his window at the wreckage of the city, and his wide eyes said it all. What have I gotten myself into? He had to be thinking that.
Sunday night, I asked GM Mickey Loomis, who recruited Brees along with coach Sean Payton, about the period 15 years ago when Brees was teetering on the brink of coming—or not.
“Think of what we were up against,” Loomis said. “Coming off Katrina. Coming off a 3-13 season. New coach. Drew couldn’t have named one player on our roster, I bet. We were competing against the great Nick Saban for him. What did I have to sell? An energetic coach, plus a place he could turn around. That’s it. He came to visit us first, before Miami, and we tried to get him to commit before he got on the plane to Miami. He wouldn’t do it.
“Then we got him. Think how fortunate we were. Of the 10 coaching jobs open that year, we had to be last. We got the best coach in Sean, and we got the best player in Drew. He came to us when we were at the lowest of the lows, and he helped bring us to the highest of the highs.
“I can’t think of a player in my lifetime who meant as much to a team and a city as Drew meant to the Saints and New Orleans.”
Turns out Brees was a perfect match with Payton, who wanted a coach on the field and an accuracy machine. Brees was both. He was more. Three years after he signed with New Orleans, the Saints finished the year 13-3, with the top seed in the NFC playoffs. But before the playoffs (and the run to the only Super Bowl in franchise history) began, on the Thursday night in the Saints’ bye week, Brees sat in a private room at the luxe New Orleans eatery Commander’s Palace with some of the city’s biggest boosters. I was a fly on the wall that night. What I saw:
Brees convened what he calls his “secret society.” In the dining room were seven of the city’s richest men and biggest boosters, power players who have anonymously teamed with Brees for such post-Katrina causes as the refurbishment of Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park and the funding of the New Orleans Ballet Association’s flagging after-school program. Brees calls the group (two of the members were absent that night) the Quarterback Club. As a token of thanks for contributions past—each man gave at least $25,000 in 2009—and future, Brees dispensed black-and-gold cuff links engraved with “QB.”
“I’d like to propose a toast,” he said, lifting his champagne flute. “All of you care so deeply about the future of this city, not just from a business perspective but from a philanthropic perspective, and it’s so desperately needed right now. A toast to you, and to New Orleans!”
“Hear, hear! To New Orleans!” the group responded.
Earlier in the Saints’ bye week, their quarterback had spent two hours working on another of his pet projects, the Lusher Charter School, for which he’d help raise the money to build a new football field, weight room, scoreboard and running track after the September 2005 hurricane had devastated the facilities and the surrounding Uptown neighborhood. Now, nine days before New Orleans’s playoff opener against the Cardinals in the Superdome, Brees chatted up and rubbed elbows with the men he knew could help him do real good for the city.
“Some guys might be playing 10 hours of Madden today, which is cool,” Brees said. “But this is my outlet. This is what I love to do.
“When I visited New Orleans, I saw it all, the good and the bad. The city was devastated. Brittany [Drew’s wife] and I saw the Lower Ninth Ward. Unbelievable. Cars lying on top of houses. Boats through living-room windows. I felt like I was driving through a World War II documentary. But I just thought, This is a chance to be part of something incredible—the rebuilding of an American city. I felt like it was a calling. Like I was destined to be here.”
That is part of the Brees story. But the football is the biggest part. In NFL history, it’s hard to imagine a better coach-quarterback combination than Brees and Payton. Payton had the imagination to know what part of a defense was vulnerable, and how to pick on it. Brees had the accuracy to do the picking.
For the Saints, Payton was the coder, Brees the executer of the coding. In November 2018, in a meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton just off the French Quarter, I watched the Saints’ Saturday night offensive meeting before a game against the Eagles. The final 40 minutes of the night was Brees sitting with the offensive coaches, quarterback telling play-caller what he wanted to run. By my count, Brees okayed 46 plays that night, 46 plays that he liked a lot out of the 18 sections of Payton’s playsheet. When I asked Payton later how many of those 46 plays he hoped to call the next day, the coach said, “All of them.”
I remember Bloodhound 21, a call in the tight red zone to take advantage of a young Philadelphia secondary, a quick call to try to catch the defense swimming. Brees loved it. Payton called it, and it resulted in a three-yard touchdown laser from Brees to newbie Austin Carr. “Sean’s okay when Drew says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ “ Carr said. “They’ve found the sweet spot in dealing with each other.”
Brees was always a prep nerd. He and Tom Brady, so similar. And Peyton Manning. I remember asking Brees a couple of years ago about advice he’d have for young quarterbacks. “So much of our league is about results, right?” he said. “We’re in a results-driven business. But truly, it is about the process. If you focus on the process, the result will take care of itself. So, simply that: Develop what your process is. Focus on that process. Too many times, we get frustrated because the result didn’t match up with the process. But if you just focus on the process, eventually you get to the point where good process will consistently equal good result.”
Good process on the field led to an amazing career. Good process off the field led to contributing to New Orleans coming out of its Katrina funk. Brees will be missed by New Orleans the city and New Orleans the football team. But he’ll be forever a beacon for what’s good about football, and what’s good about what football players can do for a city.
BREES POSTSCRIPT, Monday, 7:45 a.m. ET: As suspected, Brees announced today on NBC’s “Today” show that he’s joining the network as a football announcer. He’ll work in the booth as analyst at Notre Dame games alongside Mike Tirico this fall, and also work in the NBC studio Sunday night on “Football Night in America.” In addition, he’s expected to work on other sports programming in the NBC family, such as the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby. NBC has been after Brees for the last couple of years. One thing I’ve seen in my years at NBC is how the network works with new broadcasters to be sure they’re put in position to succeed, and so Brees will get the support from the Sunday night team that he needs. “My first thought on Drew and TV is he’ll be successful because he is so meticulous and he prepares so well,” Loomis said. That’s the feeling around football for sure. The shift from field to booth is tougher than it looks. Brees will learn that being good on TV is not just studying the teams and knowing everything about them. It’s also having that down-home way of communicating with an audience. Brees ought to be able to figure that part out too.