Drew Brees had to deal with plenty of pain Sunday.
The torn plantar fascia in his right foot sent pain shooting through his foot with every movement other than simply standing still, a posture an NFL quarterback rarely occupies on Sunday.
But Brees might have been the only one in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome who could tell something was wrong for long stretches of Sunday’s 38-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, a victory that adds another layer to an often-overlooked part of the Brees mythology: the quarterback’s incredible streak of durability during his time in New Orleans.
“The reason why he’s so good, the reason why all of us are where we are is because we fought through different things to get where we are,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “For him to come out as the leader of this team, it does a lot for everybody to see him out there gutting it out.”
Playing on the bad foot, Brees looked every bit his normal self, repeatedly fitting footballs into impossible windows as he racked up 412 yards and three touchdown passes.
Even the people closest to him had trouble seeing any discomfort. From the time Brees returned to practice Friday all the way through the fourth quarter Sunday, when the quarterback stepped into the huddle, his teammates said, he didn’t show any pain.
“You’re so focused on the game anyway — locked in, laser focus,” Brees said. “Once you get between the lines, you flip the switch, and it’s all about competing at a high level.”
New Orleans (6-9) found out Tuesday that Brees had suffered a Grade 2 tear of the plantar fascia, the connective tissue that supports the muscles in the arch of the foot, near the heel of his right foot, his plant foot when he throws. Brees immediately knew he had a chance to play; players like Jimmy Graham and Eli Manning have played entire seasons with a torn plantar fascia.
Early in the week, Brees told coach Sean Payton he planned to play through the pain. Brees has only missed one game in his career because of injury — a bruised rotator cuff that forced him to sit out the Saints’ Week 3 loss to Carolina this season. If there was any possibility he could play, he wasn’t going to miss this one.
“I told him there’s no reason I can’t get out there,” Brees said.
Brees experimented with orthotics but disliked the feeling and discarded them in favor of tape. Then he went through the same process with the tape, working with the trainers through several techniques to find the right way to provide support. He sat out the Saints’ first practice of the week Thursday to rest the injury, then returned to the practice field on Christmas.
“When he practiced on Friday, that was the point when we felt like he was going to be able to go,” Payton said. “He took a good portion of the reps. ... That was his first full day back, and he threw pretty well.”
By the time he took the field Sunday, Brees felt pretty confident in the foot, and the injury responded better than he could have hoped.
“It was just sore,” Brees said. “I wanted to keep it warm and loose. It was actually a lot better than I thought it was.”
A young Jacksonville team bore the brunt of a quarterback who played as if he were at the top of his game.
New Orleans knew the Jaguars (5-10), a dangerous young group, have been mostly a second-half team this season, and the Saints wanted to hit Jacksonville hard right away.
Brees all but buried Jacksonville on the Saints’ first three series.
Working behind a banged-up offensive line that mostly stonewalled the Jaguars pass rush and gave Brees a clean pocket, the veteran picked Jacksonville’s secondary apart. Brees fired a 17-yard laser to the back shoulder of tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for a touchdown on the Saints’ first drive. Then he dropped in a perfect deep ball to Brandin Cooks for a 71-yard touchdown to end the second.
Handed a short field by a Bobby Richardson interception to begin the Saints’ third series, Brees slipped out a 27-yard screen to Tim Hightower that set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Hightower. Before Jacksonville ran its 12th play, the Saints had a 21-0 lead, and Brees already had 196 passing yards.
New Orleans’ beleaguered defense has squandered a few of those starts over the past couple of seasons.
This time, Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles decided to test the Saints’ best cornerback early and often; in response, Delvin Breaux batted one ball into the hands of Richardson and picked off another to set up a Kai Forbath field goal and give New Orleans a 24-0 lead.
Bortles eventually learned his lesson and started working away from Breaux — the second-year player finished with 368 yards and four touchdown passes — but every time he tried to close the gap, Brees had an answer.
When Jacksonville scored its first touchdown, Brees drove the Saints into field-goal territory to end the half, even though Forbath missed the kick. When Jacksonville opened the second half with a touchdown drive, Brees responded with a 44-yard touchdown strike to newly signed running back Travaris Cadet.
Brees responded to another Jacksonville score by completing 5-of-6 throws on the ensuing drive to set up another touchdown by Hightower, who rushed for 122 yards — his first 100-yard performance since a Dec. 12, 2010, game against Denver, when Hightower was playing for the Arizona Cardinals — and put the Jaguars to bed.
“A guy like that, if it’s not broke and he can walk, he’s going to play,” Cooks said. “That’s just the type of guy he is. I didn’t have any doubt that he would come out and have a great game.”
Brees lived up to his own reputation.