Drew Brees can’t throw deep anymore.
That narrative followed the 38-year-old quarterback throughout the regular season. It’s a more refined eye has spotted some regression in Brees' arm, and maybe a few of his deep passes aren’t coming out the way they did a couple of years ago.
But it is hard, if not impossible, to prove this argument with hard evidence if you look at the full scope of the New Orleans Saints' march back to the playoffs this season.
It might be hard to believe, but Brees threw down the field this year the same way he did a season ago. He had some bad moments, just as he did a year ago when the Saints had a loaded cast of wide receivers, and he had some good moments. Statistically, Brees had almost the same season when throwing deep.
And recently, Brees has provided anecdotal evidence that veers toward the positive side.
The New Orleans quarterback hammered home the point during Sunday's regular-season finale, a 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay, by going down the field a handful of times — including the out-and-up he threw to Alvin Kamara up the right sideline, right over Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David, while climbing the pocket for a gain of 40 yards. It wasn’t a rare moment. Brees has made those throws with some degree of regularity as the season has progressed.
There was the 54-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn the week before, and what should have been a 32-yard touchdown to Michael Thomas in the back of the end zone in Week 15 on what might have been Brees’ best throw of the season, but the wide receiver didn’t get his feet down in time.
Just a couple throws, right? No big deal. What about the ones he missed?
Well, the examples of success are plentiful. As plentiful, in fact, as they were a season ago.
Brees attempted 62 passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air this season and connected on 30.
He attempted 63 such passes last year and connected on 31. Also, consider the quarterback threw 137 fewer passes this year than he did last season. In other words, the Saints were more likely to go for a deep pass this season than they were a year ago.
Brees’ deep completions number ranks third in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. Seattle’s Russell Wilson and New England’s Tom Brady tie for the lead with 31 completions.
The difference, however, is that Wilson and Brady both needed more than 80 attempts to get there (Wilson had 88, Brady 80). In other words, Brees has not only been one of the league’s more prolific quarterbacks on passes traveling 20 or more yards down the field, but he’s also been one of its most efficient.
Optically, the narrative that Brees is struggling with the deep ball isn’t entirely unfounded.
The Saints have flat-out missed on some deep shots this season, like when Brees misjudged the angle of Ginn’s post route during the first game against Tampa Bay on Nov. 5.
Those two had some other issues early in the season when Ginn bailed out Brees by adjusting to make deep catches on misplaced passes against the Bears and Packers. But they seem to have largely ironed out those wrinkles.
Widening the scope: If there is anything to hammer Brees about, it would be for the team’s inability to achieve any consistency on third down. But it’s hard to pinpoint what degree of the blame falls on the quarterback.
Black Monday in the NFL has already opened five jobs around the league, and a few more could open.
If anything has changed within the offense, it’s that Brees is far less likely to attempt a pass traveling between 11 and 19 yards through the air.
New Orleans attempted 106 passes in this quadrant of the field last season, compared to just 63 this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. One reason for this might be that wide receiver Willie Snead (25 targets) and tight end Coby Fleener (17 targets) made their livings in this area of the field last season but haven’t been factors in the offense this year.
Another reason for this area evaporating a bit is the team became more dependent on its running backs. This is also the same reason that some people have been quick to conclude that Brees is in some sort of deep regression — even though he’s going deep the same way he did a year ago and set the NFL’s single-season mark for completion percentage.
He might have only passed for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he also led the league in yards per attempt (8.1). Brees made the most of his opportunities all season. The fact that he didn’t have to pass for 5,000 yards and wasn’t constantly trying to lead drives to get back in games is a good thing for the Saints overall.
If regression does exist, it doesn’t appear to be deep or significant enough for panic. And the Saints are constructed for Brees to age gracefully within the system and take some pressure off him. That’s not a bad thing. It means he’s still the right guy for this team, should both sides agree to continue the relationship beyond this season.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAY
There were bigger, longer and more explosive plays this season. But regarding planning and scheming, the most interesting play of the year might have come during a 20-12 win over the Chicago Bears.
During that game, coach Sean Payton dusted off a call he’s used only four times during his decade-plus in New Orleans.
It looked simple enough. Brees lined up under center with Alvin Kamara and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in a split backfield. The quarterback faked to Hoomanawanui and then looked Kamara’s direction. At this point, the tight ends are blocking as if the ball is going to the running back, causing Chicago to start to defend a screen. But Brees then pumps and tucks the ball.
The play looked busted. Tight end Josh Hill then sheds his block and slips up the seam on a delayed route for a gain of 19 yards.
It looked like a busted play. It wasn’t. New Orleans ran the same play for a 14-yard gain against the Dallas Cowboys in 2006 and to David Thomas for a gain of 25 against the New England Patriots in 2009.
Along the same lines, New Orleans ran a fullback option to Alvin Kamara on a fourth down against the Detroit Lions. The inspiration for that play came from back in 2003 when Payton was serving as Dallas’ offensive coordinator.
The Saints took note of how Atlanta defended a fade route to Michael Thomas in the teams' first meeting Dec. 7 and then used it against the Falcons in the second meeting on Christmas Eve.
In the first game, New Orleans saw how the safety (blue circle) rotated over to double Thomas, leaving cornerback Desmond Trufant 1-on-1 on an in route (green circles below). Thomas still caught the pass for a long gain, but the Saints were most interested in the coverage.
New Orleans took advantage of this coverage in the second meeting. The Saints came out in the same look and baited the Falcons into defending it the same way. The only difference is Willie Snead ran the crossing route and Ted Ginn Jr. took Snead's place. And instead of running an in route, Ginn cut up the field instead of going across it to take advantage of the single coverage. He easily scored.
DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR
There's really only one candidate here.
There were flashier or more memorable plays during the season. But there was only one that put the Saints on track for the rest of the season.
P.J. Williams' interception against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3 put New Orleans in control of that game. They then won eight in a row.
It was a good play, too. The cornerback sat back on an in route by Devin Funchess, jumped it, and pulled in the pass. New Orleans scored on the next possession to go up 14-6. It was an important moment because it turned Carolina a little more one-dimensional, and the Saints had struggled to stop the Panthers' running game to that point.
Williams missed a meeting the next week while the team was in London to play the Dolphins, which allowed Ken Crawley to replace him as a starter. But Williams' impact on the season is undeniable.
MOST VICIOUS DEFENSIVE PLAY
In Week 6 against the Lions, Cam Jordan used tackle Brian Mihalik's body to sack quarterback Matthew Stafford. Jordan never even touched the quarterback. He just bull-rushed the tackle all the way back into the quarterback.
This actually happened.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR
Dennis Allen is the obvious choice here. He might even be the NFL's top assistant. If he doesn't get a chance to interview as a head coach this year, he should get an opportunity next offseason if the defense continues to succeed.
But the choice here is offensive line coach Dan Roushar. He hasn't had his intended starting five all season. First, he was without left tackle Terron Armstead, and then right tackle Zach Strief was out for the year.
It seemed like every week a new injury was popping up, and yet it never mattered. The group was ready to play every week and Brees never really seemed to sweat (though he did a good job of protecting himself by having a quick trigger). The quarterback was pressured only 109 times this season, the lowest mark in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
The coach deserves a ton of credit for keeping that group together despite difficult circumstances throughout the year.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
It would take hundreds of screenshots and videos to properly illustrate everything Alvin Kamara did this season. You just had to see it to believe it.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The defense transformed when Marshon Lattimore was drafted.
He immediately made the secondary the strength of the defense, which has allowed New Orleans to scheme around some injuries in the front seven without much attrition on that side of the ball.
New Orleans now has a player who can lock down his side of the field and shadow the opposition's top receiver. Now, he just needs to keep it up throughout the postseason.
PLAYER MOST MISSED
The defense was fantastic this season in many games, especially considering where this group was last year.
But it was hard not to sit and wonder how the defensive front might have looked with Nick Fairley on the field. He wasn't far behind Jordan last season in terms of impact, and another disruptive force on the defensive line might have put this group over the top.
Losing Alex Okafor, Kenny Vaccaro, Delvin Breaux and Alex Anzalone also hurt, but it's hard to imagine anyone having the same kind of impact Fairley might have had on an improved front with a good secondary buying him extra time.
Cam Jordan. He was the best player on the team this season. It's that simple.