The most respected trait in the NFL has nothing to do with God-given ability, football smarts or work ethic.
It’s simply showing up to work.
The players who find a way to play week after week and year after year — battling through obvious injury to play and play well — earn a different sort of honor, a respect that teammates and coaches around the league all notice.
That’s why, time and time again, when the NFL’s best quarterbacks are asked about the record they’d like to have most, the one that keeps coming up is Brett Favre’s mark of 297 consecutive starts.
Drew Brees has his own streak of durability and longevity, a decade in New Orleans that has featured only two missed games — one a coach’s decision and another this season after a bruised rotator cuff cost Brees the necessary arm strength to be effective.
And that’s why the Saints’ franchise quarterback has been pushing to play on a pain-riddled right foot Sunday against Jacksonville despite his team’s 5-9 record and no chance of making the playoffs.
“One reason only,” Brees said. “I want to play for my guys — bottom line.”
Brees, who has been listed as questionable on the injury report, is working through one of the most difficult seasons of his career, both because of the team’s struggles and his own physical adversity.
In Week 3 at Carolina, Brees was forced to miss the first start of his career in New Orleans because of injury, a shoulder problem that he spent the week trying to rehabilitate so he could get out on the field and keep the streak alive.
Now, 14 games into a season when Brees has effectively quieted talk that his physical skills are on the decline at age 36 — Brees is putting up his usual stat line, with 4,135 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, all while working with an overhauled receiving corps — the veteran finds himself battling another injury he has never had to manage before.
“You always have something that you’re battling, but I’ve never had this happen before, and I’ve never had to miss a game because of my shoulder,” he said. “I had a dislocated shoulder 10 years ago, which I guess is about as bad as it gets when it comes to a shoulder injury, I didn’t have to miss any games. I guess I am no stranger to having to rehab and do different things to get yourself ready to play, or to get back to playing.”
A tear of the plantar fascia leaves little room for certainty.
Brees has a Grade 2 tear near his heel, which leaves little risk for further injury and will not require surgery in the offseason, but it’s also the kind of tear that causes intense pain with every step. The plantar fascia, a layer of tissues that covers the muscle in the arch of the foot, covers the entire bottom of the foot. A tear isn’t something that can be avoided by limiting a certain movement or staying confined to the pocket.
If Brees is to play against Jacksonville, he’ll have to manage the pain.
“There are varying degrees and different areas on the foot that this could affect, but some guys say that a partial tear is worse than a full tear and that you want it to pop. ... How each guy would describe that feeling is something different, but once it pops, it actually will heal faster and maybe it’s less chronic,” Brees said. “Again, this is kind of a learning thing for me. I just know the way it feels right now and what I’m going to have to do between now and game time to get myself ready to play.”
Brees’ challenge Sunday is mostly about dealing with the pain and finding a way to move in the pocket.
Due to the nature of the injury, the Saints can’t give Brees a cortisone shot to help with the pain, Brees said, but there are tape jobs, orthotics and special cleats available to take the pressure off the arch of his foot.
“As far as treatment goes, there is calming it down, while at the same time, you’ve got to get it moving to see what you are able to do and what you are able to tolerate and get blood flow so that promotes the healing process and just various things like that,” Brees said. “So it’s a balance between the two, just like any injury. It needs time to heal and, at the same time, you have to keep it moving so it doesn’t get stiff.”
Brees’ ability to endure pain has never been in question in New Orleans. For some Saints fans, the question is why he would try so hard to endure a difficult injury with so little on the line.
But that question, to Saints players and coaches, misses the mark.
“I think the key is that you are looking to play the player that gives you the best chance to win,” coach Sean Payton said.
And for a veteran like tight end Benjamin Watson, the idea that Brees would try to play was always a foregone conclusion.
“Since I’ve been here, Drew hasn’t missed a game, except for the Carolina game this year,” Watson said. “He is usually pretty reliable, so the idea is that we’ll just go through the week and see if he is going to be up or not.”
Brees, and the rest of these Saints, see these games as opportunities to start building a foundation for the future.
“Somebody asked last week, ‘Why are these games important?’ ” Brees said. “For exactly that reason — so that you can have the opportunity to build that rapport with guys that you’re, hopefully, going to play with for a very long time. You just don’t know what could happen in these next few games that could maybe be the turning point or the tipping point to something greater down the road.”
And that makes it worth it for Brees to try to find a way to endure whatever pain his foot causes.