NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton is a dear friend of Doug Pederson’s. In other words, you do not want to know how the coach of the New Orleans Saints treats his enemies.
Throwing a touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 while holding a 31-point lead? Blitzing a battered Carson Wentz in the final minutes while holding a 41-point lead?
In high school or college football, that kind of thing would inspire a community uprising complete with pitchforks and torches. In the pay-for-play world of the NFL, the fact Payton has a soon-to-be-40-year-old quarterback dominant enough to humiliate the defending champs with such a cold, bloodless approach is the far bigger story.
Drew Brees is the NFL’s most valuable player and its most lethal weapon, and that isn’t likely to change between now and his 40th birthday in January. He completed 73 percent of his passes in this 48-7 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles, and yet the stat book — he completed 77 percent over his first nine games — said his performance qualified as a subpar day at the office.
That’s the price you pay when you are assembling one of the greatest seasons any quarterback has ever had.
No. 9 in your program is No. 1 in your right-minded MVP standings. Brees wears that number, 9, because he grew up in Austin, Texas idolizing Ted Williams. Drew and his younger brother Reid were passionate baseball fans and talented young players, and when they weren’t dreaming of someday appearing in the College World Series (Reid realized that dream with Baylor in 2005), they were spending Sunday mornings watching the “Golden Greats of Baseball” on VHS tapes. “The Splendid Splinter,” Drew once said. “That was my guy.”
The Splendid Spinner is in the middle of his own magical 1941, when Williams batted .406, hit 37 home runs, and struck out 27 times in 606 plate appearances. Brees now has 25 touchdown passes against one interception in a season that has already seen him become the most prolific (by yardage) passer of all time. He will surely break the league record he set last year when he completed 72 percent of his attempts.
“It’s crazy to think Drew is going to be on one of those videos we watched as kids,” Reid Brees told ESPN.com by phone Sunday night. “Actually, he already is on videos. But when they make another one after he retires and show the greatest quarterbacks of all time, my brother’s going to be on that list, if not in the conversation as the best ever.”
The Brees brothers also grew up watching a Michael Jordan tape over and over and over again. But their hearts were in baseball, and Reid said his older brother was a left-handed batter who naturally gravitated towards Williams. Whatever the boys saw on those old videos, they ran out into their backyard and immediately tried to duplicate. “And every time we’d go out there,” said Reid, who works in medical sales in the Denver area, “it was bottom of the ninth, two outs, full count, bases loaded and you’re down three runs. The moments you always dream about.”
For Drew, reality has triumphed over the fantasy. He was ignored by the major college programs in his home state after a dazzling high school career, but he overcame questions about his size and his arm at Purdue, and again in the NFL, to stand today as pro football’s best player. He threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns against Philly, and it was a shock every time he failed to complete a pass. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brees went 9-for-12 for 121 yards and two touchdowns while throwing into tight windows (no more than one yard of separation) against the Eagles, or three more such completions than any other quarterback in any other game this season.
“I feel really good right now,” Brees said afterward. “I love my team. I love coming to work every day with these guys. I want to play my heart out for these guys. I care about them. I certainly don’t want to let them down. I want to be as consistent as I can for them, give them confidence, put them in positions to succeed, and that’s my job. So I’m just doing my job.”
The Saints are 9-1, and if they land home-field advantage throughout the playoffs it’s awfully difficult to imagine any NFC team beating them in the Superdome. This building is absurdly loud, and Brees’ skill position players are absurdly good. The Saints have averaged 48 points in their last three games. They have joined the 2013 Broncos as the only teams to score at least 40 points in six games since the NFL-AFL merger.
“We have a high standard for ourselves,” Brees said. It starts with the quarterback, of course. In the winners’ locker room after the game, Brees walked about with a green towel wrapped around his waist, eating a banana with one hand and slapping teammates’ hands with the other. Always leading. Always encouraging.
Hard to believe he has never won the league’s MVP award, but then again, the 6-foot, 209-pound Brees spent much of his career in the shadows of generational giants Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Peyton is long gone, and a 41-year-old Brady has devolved into Tom Not-So-Terrific, at least temporarily, leaving Brees to battle it out with whiz kids Patrick Mahomes, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff.
Of greater consequence, Brees burns to win a second Super Bowl ring and to enhance a legacy that, well, doesn’t need a whole lot of enhancing. When Brees last won a title after the 2009 season, three of his four children weren’t even born. He’s a different man now. And a much better football player.
So now Brees is favored to lead New Orleans to a 10-1 record in Thursday night’s meeting with Atlanta. Asked if a national TV game on Thanksgiving night still stirred his competitive juices, Brees brought up his childhood with Reid and their holiday football games in the backyard.
On the phone Sunday night, Reid also recalled those games, along with all the obstacles his older brother hurdled between their Austin backyard and quarterbacking greatness in New Orleans.
“Drew deserves everything he’s getting right now,” Reid said. “I’ve seen him do amazing things my entire life, so what he’s doing now is no surprise. But still, it is very cool to watch.”
Very cool. And very devastating.