Reggie Bush doesn’t remember the play.
It probably feels more significant in hindsight than it did in the moment. It was his first career reception, but more importantly, it was the first completion of Drew Brees’ tenure with the Saints.
“I don’t remember it,” Bush said. “Tell me which play? I don’t even remember which play.”
It isn’t easy to remember all of the plays Brees has made, which is why The Advocate recently watched, charted and categorized all 7,485 passes the quarterback has thrown during his time in New Orleans. With Brees trailing Peyton Manning by 1,495 on the all-time yards passing list, it seemed prudent to gather a greater understanding for how one of the NFL’s greatest careers came together.
The pass to Bush was a simple hitch on the right sideline. It’s easy to understand why the details of the 11-yard gain have faded from Bush’s memory. The 2006 opener against Cleveland was nearly spoiled when Bush misplayed a punt before pulling it in, and then Brees got off to an underwhelming start when his first pass was batted down by Willie McGinest, and his second pass, a curl to Joe Horn, was woefully underthrown.
Looking back now, that play was the first evidence of how then-rookie coach Sean Payton planned to unleash running backs like Bush, Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara on the rest of the league, but at the time it was the play that ended a whole lot of anxiety about a new era for the team.
It isn’t easy to locate an exact moment when it looked like Brees was going to become an all-time great who would eventually make a run at multiple NFL records. Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi was working in Atlanta as a defensive assistant during the 2006 season, and he says he could see it right away when the teams played that season.
“I thought he was pretty great in that season,” Lombardi said. “From the minute I got here (in 2007), he was Drew Brees to me. I remember watching him in those first practices, the way he operated, the speed with which we operated, the speed he made decisions, the accuracy, it was all there. I knew he was special from the get-go.”
And you can see some of those things early in Brees’ tenure. It is easy to appreciate how efficiently he runs Payton’s offense, but it wasn't until it all became normal and then apparent he would one day claim some of the game’s most hallowed marks.
And that’s the thing about greatness. It allows you take moments for granted and forget about all the pieces required to get there. Sometimes you need to go back for a reminder. So, here is a look at the routes he has targeted most often during his time in New Orleans.
Out: 941 for 1,298, 8,591 yards
* Marques Colston: 140 for 197, 1,518 yards
* Jimmy Graham: 104 for 149, 859 yards
* Lance Moore: 86 for 117, 747 yards
* Devery Henderson: 43 for 65, 452 yards
* Brandin Cooks: 44 for 53, 409 yards
In: 366 for 558, 5,193 yards
* Colston: 80 for 127, 1,291 yards
* Graham: 36 for 55, 521 yards
* Moore: 34 for 55, 503 yards
* Henderson: 20 for 35, 338 yards
* Jeremy Shockey: 22-for-32, 265 yards
No one has ever told Brees he has a big arm.
That was one of the knocks on him when he entered the league, and the concern was reignited after he suffered a shoulder injury in 2005, an injury some thought might end his career. But Brees has found ways to outwit whatever physical shortcomings are working against him by knowing everything there is to know about each play and how it might be defended before it is called.
“When I drop back to pass, I have this vision according to the coverage on where everybody’s supposed to be,” Brees said. “In many cases, as a quarterback, you have to throw the ball with trust and anticipation to spots based upon coverage and what it looks like and anticipate the guys are going to be there.”
This isn’t as much of an issue on the in route, where players are breaking across the middle of the field. The need is different on out routes. On those throws, especially ones down the field, a good amount of arm strength is needed to put the ball outside the numbers and out of the reach of cornerbacks.
Not many NFL quarterbacks throw out routes that travel 20 or more yards. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the NFL with four in 2017, and Blake Bortles had three in 2016. So, the fact that Brees has connected on 14 such throws throughout his time in New Orleans keeps him on par with the rest of the NFL quarterbacks.
Where Brees is ahead of most is on short and intermediate out routes. He’s connected on 941 of 1,298 attempts for 8,591 yards during his time in New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, Marques Colston (140 catches for 1,518 yards), who spent a decade catching passes from Brees, was the most productive receiver on this route. He was similarly productive on in routes, on which he caught 80 passes for 1,291 yards.
So, how does Brees succeed on what is supposed to be one of the more difficult throws? It's all about having that vision of the offense, and knowing exactly what he's going to do based on whatever coverage he sees.
“Being on the same page with his receivers," former Saints running back Deuce McAllister said. "That’s why he talks about the timing and rhythm of a throw, because a lot of times he might not even see the receiver — but he knows where he’s supposed to be."
That isn't much of an issue for Brees. After working with the material for the past dozen years, not to mention the 10 or so passing concepts in the offense he is said to have brought with him from Purdue and San Diego, he could probably stop studying the offense and still complete 65 percent of his passes every season.
And yet those around Brees say he still prepares for every variable like it is the first time he's thought about a particular passing concept.
“I'm leaving on a Friday, and he’s out on the field by himself, visualizing the game plan, taking drops,” quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi said. “Just him and an empty field.”
The final scene would resemble a script from a fictional Hollywood movie, almost too good to be true for every Saints fan.
Seam/go: 516 for 1,052, 14,367 yards
* Colston: 104 for 200, 2,448
* Henderson: 47 for 117, 1,798
* Graham: 57 for 117, 1,312
* Meachem: 32 for 64, 1,144
* Moore: 44 for 92, 1,116
Careers were born here on seam and go routes.
Colston did many things well, but the image of him going up the seam and contorting his body to make a contested catch is one of the main reasons he is remembered so fondly. And what’s Jimmy Graham without all of those catches up the hash marks? He transitioned from “former basketball player” to “All-Pro tight end” on that route.
One of the reasons the route has been so deadly is because of the vicious mentality behind the play. Brees and Payton will punish people if the defenders don’t correctly respect whoever is in the slot or lined up at tight end. It might end up even worse if they decide to try to defend that area with a weak zone scheme.
And having an elite quarterback setting up things also helps.
"Nothing can be done without this guy throwing it and the way he’s able to look off the defenders," tight end Ben Watson said. "A lot of times you talk to defenders, they read the quarterback’s eyes. You've got a high safety; he’s reading the quarterback’s eyes. If a quarterback is confident in the guy running the seam route and in his arm and his ability to get the ball there, he’s able to move that DB away so that that opening is there and throw the ball back to him."
Colston was a solid outside receiver. He became elite when operating from the slot, where he sometimes matched up against linebackers and safeties because of the various formations and flexible personnel used by the Saints.
So, there's no wonder Brees has collected more than 13,000 yards passing while targeting the slot, including nearly 5,500 to Colston. Willie Snead took over the role as the primary slot receiver when Colston retired following the 2015 season. He was targeted on only 25 go or seam routes during his three years with the team.
Many of the ways the Saints succeed up the seam rings true on go routes. Brees has never been the type of player who can just throw it behind the last defender. But he’s always been accurate on deep passes and has enjoyed the benefit of working within a scheme that tends to get players open. Once that happens, Brees takes care of business by throwing a catchable ball.
“He has really great timing. He doesn’t have to throw it out there and let it hang in the air that long,” former wide receiver Devery Henderson, who logged 1,798 yards in this category, said. “He just throws it on a line to get it to the guy and let him do his thing. I think that’s a great thing for him.”
Brees’ arm might have aged a little over the past few years. New Orleans occasionally uses a deep route that bends across the field instead of one that remains vertical, which is a change over the past few years. But that tactic could be circumstantial. Overall, the quarterback still has a few underthrown deep passes every year, which has been the case since 2006, but he connects on many more down the field.
The total attempts on both of these routes were low last year. Brees attempted only 57 after throwing 86 the previous year, but that was likely a function of the team having no solid receiving options at tight end and not needing to throw the ball down the field. Coby Fleener and Michael Hoomanwanui combined for the only eight targets on these two routes among tight ends. Even if New Orleans is often playing from ahead this year, the numbers should increase a bit with Ben Watson, who caught 12 passes on these routes for 247 yards in 2015, back in the fold.
While there have been some peaks (56 percent in 2006) and valleys (38 percent in 2007), the Saints quarterback has typically connected on about 50 percent of his passes on these routes year after year. What is interesting, though, is that after hitting on 49.5 percent of his attempts in 2011 and 2012, Brees bottomed out a bit in 2013 (40 percent) and 2014 (44.4).
With Brandin Cooks emerging as one of the better deep threats and catching 64 percent of his targets on those two routes during his final two seasons with the team, Brees elevated his overall percentages to 51.3 percent in 2015 and 52.3 percent in 2016. The number dipped to 49 percent last year.
So, while there are a few differences from previous years, for the most part, this remains a viable part of Brees’ game and should for the foreseeable future.
Can't see video below? Click here.
Hitch: 989 for 1,357, 9,347 yards
* Colston: 223-317, 2,274 yards
* Moore: 96-128, 967 yards
* Graham: 74-99, 716 yards
* Henderson: 56-76, 575 yards
* Michael Thomas: 52-68, 520 yards
The most used route in the New Orleans offense is often one of its most nondescript throws. But glory or not, the hitch has been one of Brees' most deadly weapons.
Think about it this way: The 9,347 yards Brees has gained via hitches would rank sixth in franchise history in total yards passing, and his 989 completions would rank fifth. If that sounds more like a commentary on the history of Saints quarterbacks than it does Brees’ brilliance, maybe this works better: Those are more yards and more catches than Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones or New England tight end Rob Gronkowski have accumulated throughout their careers.
The hitch ranking so highly shouldn’t be a surprise. It is often a safety valve and is a highly efficient pass. It is also the basis of one of the team’s favorite passing concepts where the team will have the slot receiver run a go route that is flanked by two hitches. New Orleans used the concept 36 times in 2016 and 28 times in 2015.
The first catches made by Colston, Alvin Kamara, Reggie Bush and Michael Thomas all came on hitches.
What is surprising is that, after just two short seasons, Thomas (52 catches, 520 yards) already has cracked the top five in this category behind Colston (223 catches, 2,274 yards), Moore (96, 967), Jimmy Graham (74, 716) and Devery Henderson (56, 575). But he has shown a penchant for succeeding in physical situations, which has at times aided him on hitches.
“A lot of people sometimes don’t like physicality,” Thomas said. “They can’t take it. That’s how I came up, my upbringing, fighting for stuff, being physical, using my hands, all the stuff. Combat and stuff like that. Just different tools to have in your toolbox playing receiver.”
Those same traits have helped Thomas quickly move up the ranks on slant routes. After just two seasons, he already ranks second on the list in both catches (31) and yards (331). Colston leads with 364 yards on 36 receptions.Thomas should pass him in both categories this year, which goes to show how this offense evolves based on its personnel.
Crossing route: 394 for 539, 4,466 yards
* Colston: 73 for 97, 941 yards
* Graham: 44 for 64, 556 yards
* Michael Thomas: 25 for 35, 340 yards
* Moore: 30 for 39, 297 yards
* Watson: 27 for 32, 284 yards
Some of the best crossing routes Colston ran were probably never crossing routes at all.
The integrity of this project would be in jeopardy if it were about play design and not just the passes Brees has thrown because Colston didn't always run the route he was supposed to run.
There have been a few players over the years who were able to treat New Orleans' playbook as a suggestion and not a map. But none of them were as in sync with Brees as Colston.
So, instead of going up a couple of yards and breaking toward the middle of the field on a crossing route, Colston might stay outside of the hash and turn the play into a skinny post if he saw the middle of the field covered. It sounds simple, but it wasn't, and the whole offense could fall out of sync with one mistake.
“You had a receiver with great feel, who could recognize a look and a quarterback who could do the same thing and they’d be on the same page,” Lombardi said. “He could do something, and I would say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t want everyone to do that, but with this quarterback and this receiver it’s allowed.’ It’s that ability to master the rules and know when we can break them.”
Moore was another one who was afforded the latitude to make adjustments on the fly.
“It was very normal for something to happen on game day and for the coaches to look around,” Payton said. “It would be this little — not a coup — but a little Brees-Lance Moore adaptation and we’d be like, ‘What play is that?’ And we’d find out on Monday what they were thinking, and generally, it was the right adjustment.
“As coaches, you prepare all week, and you’re meeting, and you’re putting together a plan, and all of a sudden I’ve got two receivers running these little ins and Lance is running a high (corner route). We don’t even have that route in! But it was a good adjustment.”
The key to being able to operate like this is to know everything about the offense and how all the pieces fit. So, it isn’t just about breaking up the field on a skinny post. Colston needed to know the spacing of the passing concept and cheat in a way so he wouldn’t get in the way of the other routes.
From there, it’s all about the quarterback and wide receiver seeing things through the same eyes, and Brees being familiar enough with his target to anticipate where he is going to end up.
“Your body language is telling me exactly what you are doing, and I can feel it and trust to throw the ball accordingly,” Brees said.
The crossing route wasn’t one of Colston’s signature plays by any means, and it wasn’t a big part of the offense until recently. Brees has thrown only 539 and has connected on 394 for 4,466 yards.
Colston, who caught 73 for 941 yards, leads this category due to longevity as much as anything else, though Thomas (340 yards) appears to have brought this route back to the forefront of the offense and could eclipse Colston if he signs a second contract with New Orleans. Those adjustments are easier to make from the slot, so it isn't a huge part of his game, but Lombardi says Thomas has started to build some of that chemistry with Brees.
The other part of this is it is also possible that some of Colston's crossing routes ended up looking like hitches because he broke down into a zone instead of carrying on across the field. Either way, Brees found him.
Drew Brees is feeling good as the start of his 13th season as the starting quarterback of the New Orleans Saints draws near.
Screens: 1,081 for 1,245, 6,934 yards
* Pierre Thomas: 186 for 205, 1,479 yards
* Reggie Bush: 138 for 166, 932 yards
* Darren Sproles: 106 for 116, 768 yards
* Mark Ingram: 91 for 110, 582 yards
* Alvin Kamara: 37 for 43, 291 yards
Being great on screens isn’t only about being able to run great routes or having great hands.
Sure, you have to be able to catch the ball and run the route, but you also need to be a good blocker. If the opposition doesn’t believe a running back can sit back in protection and pick up a blitz, how good he is with the ball in his hands doesn't matter. The defense will see the play coming and snuff the play out.
So, the real reason Pierre Thomas is in the discussion as the best screen runner of his generation is that he first earned respect as a blocker.
“It’s hard to be a receiving screen back if you’re rarely in protection,” Payton said. “So, Pierre, when we saw the heavy blitz teams, and there’s countless hours spent on the third-down blitz protection, he had it. That lends itself to be someone who has a real good feel for it. He has tremendous instincts.
“His approach wouldn’t be the same each time either. I think that goes to the football IQ, the savviness, the feel for the game. The hard part is he’s gone, and since then it’s like why isn’t our screen game going.”
Pierre Thomas says that scoring a touchdown on a screen in the Super Bowl was one of the highlights of his career, and he agrees with Payton’s take on why he was so successful running the route.
“For me to — I would say to win an Oscar — I have to act like I’m blocking,” Pierre Thomas, who played for the Saints from 2007-2014, said. “I have to act like I’m setting it up. I have to be there. We all have to act. We all have to win an Oscar out there during that play. We won it several times. I can tell you that.”
The New Orleans offense is full of stars — big, bright stars who can take up the entire night sky.
The screen was a deadly weapon for New Orleans for a long time — from the beginning, even. After gaining 500 yards in 2006 and 2007 on screens, the team set a high in 2008 with 722. The wave was short-lived, as things settled back in around 500 yards the next two seasons before Darren Sproles (768 total yards on screens) arrived and helped lift the total to 680 in 2011 and 735 in 2012.
But another fall came, and the screen game steadily deteriorated until hitting a low of 495 yards in 2016 before jumping back to 740 last year, thanks mainly to Alvin Kamara, who led the way with 291 yards.
New Orleans believes he has the potential to be one of the best on the route. There is the protection element with him to a degree, but his vision and ability to diagnose the defense plays a significant role in his success.
That he is incredibly difficult to tackle and that he plays behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines also helps.
“Generally, a good screen runner is pretty smart, so the looks can change,” Payton said. “Sometimes it's a pressure look, sometimes a softer zone look, but generally for him, there aren't many times where he does something that surprises you, and I think that's a good trait as a running back. I think having a little bit of savvy and football awareness goes into that.”
New Orleans is at its best when the screen game is flowing. Pierre Thomas set the tone at the beginning of this era. It now looks like the team is back in good hands with Kamara, who, if everything bodes well, could end up being the best of a strong class of running backs who have worn black and gold.
If nothing else, Brees won’t have to throw the ball very far to pick up a couple of hundred extra yards every season.