Undersized and overlooked at the onset of what would become a hugely successful career, Drew Brees was a statistical giant whose right arm and extraordinary talents transformed the New Orleans Saints into a winner.
Pinpoint in his accuracy, quick in his release and sensational across 20 autumns of NFL play, Brees officially announced his retirement Sunday, beginning the countdown to his arrival in Canton.
The announcement was a family affair that came via social media and following a lengthy wait after the end of the Saints' season.
It's a decision many believed was coming, though that hardly lessens the gravity of it all, as one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks has concluded his career, his name etched across record books and his impact on the Saints franchise forever entrenched.
Left behind by Brees are 13 trips to the Pro Bowl, two AP Offensive Player of the Year accolades, a 2006 Walter Payton Man of The Year honor, an NFL-record 80,358 yards passing, 571 touchdown passes and a 67.7 completion percentage that accentuated the accuracy that was his trademark. And, of course, he leaves New Orleans a 2009 season to cherish until the sun grows cold, having marched the Saints to their only Super Bowl and coming away with a victory and the Super Bowl MVP.
"When I was hired by the Saints as head coach in 2006, the very first goal was to establish a functional and winning culture," Saints head coach Sean Payton said in a statement. "In doing so, it was vital to know what we were looking for in a player, talent, work ethic, makeup, intelligence and leadership are all qualities we found in Drew Brees. We also found a player with a burning desire to win. Within a year, he helped lead our team to the club's first NFC Championship appearance.
"Throughout his career, his consistency and dedication to excellence were unparalleled. In a very short period of time, he would help lead a region to recovery and a team to a Super Bowl Championship. He was a magnificent leader both on and off the field. His attention to detail and competitive spirit were infectious. For all of us that have had the chance to coach him, it has been our privilege, we are better for it."
The 42-year-old Brees' 20-season career began with the Chargers, who drafted him with the first pick of the second round in the 2001 NFL Draft. A record-setter at Purdue, Brees' 6-foot frame, questions surrounding his arm strength and his ability to successfully transition from the Boilermakers' spread offense to the NFL saw him drop from the first round. He played five seasons with the Bolts, leaving after the Chargers applied the franchise tag on him in 2005 and planned to move forward with 2004 first-round pick Philip Rivers -- who it turns out retired after the same season as Brees.
In 2006, Brees signed a six-year deal with the Saints and forever changed professional sports in Louisiana.
"Drew is so much more valuable than all the records, awards and accolades that he amassed through a 15-year career with the New Orleans Saints and 20-year NFL playing career, one of the greatest in our league's history," Saints owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. "When Drew first joined the Saints in 2006, my late husband Tom was determined to deliver a team to New Orleans that would win a championship on the field and become a leader in the community following the setbacks that Hurricane Katrina dealt our region. Over and above his outstanding performance, Drew came to represent the resolve, passion and drive that resonates not only with Saints fans and football fans, but our entire community. He played the game and played the position at its highest level, but just as important, represented our organization and region in the highest fashion. We will forever be grateful to him for what he brought to our club and the entire Gulf South community, showing everybody what can be accomplished by putting our sleeves up and showing leadership, determination and hard work. As we grew as a region and as a football team, it was also a pleasure to watch him grow as a husband to Brittany and become a father to four incredible children."
Brees' final game will stand as a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round, falling against longtime contemporary Tom Brady. It was a dismal performance marked by three interceptions and a 38.1 passer rating that were each career-lows in the postseason for Brees.
It was hardly a fitting end for such a phenomenal career, but Brees bided his time before announcing his retirement and that final subpar showing is already being lost amid the pomp and circumstance that rightfully accompany the conclusion of such a heralded career.
Of all the sensational statistics that Brees' career holds, perhaps the most significant historically is that which shows just how cosmically he altered the state of the Saints franchise. After his arrival in New Orleans in 2006, Brees captained the Saints to nine winning seasons, rescuing a franchise that had just seven winning campaigns in team chronicle prior to the QB arriving -- a span that covered 1967-2005.
In all those seasons, the Saints mustered just five postseason berths, while Brees' Saints went to the playoffs nine times in his 15 seasons.
It was an instant turn of fortune for the fleur de lis-clad franchise. In Brees' first season with the Saints, New Orleans broke a five-year playoff drought, earned just its second postseason win in franchise history and advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the first time. It came a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, as the Saints went 10-6 with Brees debuting as the starter and giving a beleaguered region something to cheer about.
Thereafter, the Saints, who never finished with a record worse than 7-9 in Brees' tenure, rebounded from two playoff-less seasons to win their first and only Super Bowl in their first and only appearance.
Often overshadowed by Peyton Manning and Brady in his time, Brees stood tall on that February night in Miami in 2010, as the Saints bested Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17. Brees was the game's most valuable player, his 32 completions still a game record tied with Brady. He was an exceptional 32 for 39 for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a two-yarder to Jeremy Shockey with just under six minutes left that stood as the game-winner.
In the seasons that followed, Brees and the Saints chased another Super Bowl trophy, but his career concludes without one more.
He piled up stats galore along the way, leading the league in passing a record seven times and toppling 5,000 yards in a season a record five times. It added up to his league-standard 80,358 passing yards; Brees exits the game as the only player in NFL lore to surpass 80,000.
For a time, he was also the all-time leader in TD passes, vaulting past Manning, but being overtaken in the 2020 season by Brady, his 571 settling at second all-time and 10 behind Brady at regular season's end.
Four of the five top single-season marks in completion percentage belong to Brees, including his 74.4% showing in 2018 that stands as the most accurate season ever.
Often discounted or forgotten, the Chargers were a winner with Brees, as well. He was 11-4 and 9-7 in his last two seasons as a starter with the Bolts.
Brees' 172 wins as a starter are fourth all-time, with 142 coming as a Saint.
Even the greatest have their naysayers. Brees' point to him having long played inside the cozy domed confines of the Superdome, in an offense accentuating his quick-strike approach and camouflaging downfield deficiencies.
However, those each point to two of the hallmarks of Brees' career. His height and arm made him an underdog, and he overcame all that in glorious, Hall of Fame-worthy fashion. And Brees found the perfect fit with the Saints and head coach Sean Payton, a QB1-coach combo locked at the hip for history.
He and Payton began their runs in New Orleans in the same 2006 season, and now what lies ahead will be the franchise's biggest storyline and most pressing need of the offseason. Jameis Winston is a free agent, and Taysom Hill's four-game run as a starter in relief of an injured Brees this past season saw the passing game struggle, though Hill produced a 3-1 record. Upon Brees' announcement, the Saints are expected to turn their focus on Winston, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported.
New Orleans ultimately came up short once more this past season. The Saints won a fourth-straight NFC South title, produced a fourth-consecutive season with double-digit wins, but fell short of reaching the Super Bowl yet again, despite having been a prohibitive favorite to do so autumn after autumn.
Playing in the shadow of the ring collector named Brady, winning just one Super Bowl doesn't highlight a resume quite as it used to or perhaps still should. But Brees' career was marked by an avalanche of impressive numbers, and that includes far more triumphs than failures. He was a standard in the NFL often taken for granted, predictably putting up all-time numbers and making the Saints a contender seemingly every campaign.
Twenty years ago, Brees made his debut in relief of a concussed Doug Flutie. He threw the first of what would become 571 career touchdowns in a 25-20 loss to the Chiefs. The Chargers had drafted two Hall of Famers -- Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson -- in the same year and a dynamic duo looked to be poised for grand success.
But Brees was destined for New Orleans. Short in stature, Brees' career and its accomplishments stand tall with gigantic numbers and the transformation of a franchise from an also-ran to a perennial division champion and title contender.
The greatest era in Saints chronicle -- the Brees era -- has concluded. The greatest Saint of them all has called it a career.