Much will be made of the legacy of Saints’ Drew Brees on the field. But for New Orleanians, it’s as much who he was off the field that we love.
Jim Haslett came to the New Orleans Saints in 2000. Haslett had been a player and was a strong defensive coach. In his first year, the Saints won their first-ever playoff game. It was a nice time in the city, with hopes of the team being more than just the punch line in a joke.
That success was fleeting. The Saints didn’t return to the playoffs in Haslett’s tenure, playing just one game above .500 ball for the next 3 seasons. So there was no real grand expectation for the 2005 season.
The Saints drafted Jamaal Brown out of Oklahoma to shore up the offensive line, but that wasn’t really a “sexy” selection.
The Saints were sitting at 1-2 in the 2005 preseason, with one trip to Oakland left on the preseason schedule. They lost in the Superdome on August 26th to the Baltimore Ravens. No one had visions of a Super Bowl run.
But no one had visions of catastrophe either.
Before they played their final preseason game scheduled for September 1, the Saints preemptively left town headed to practice on the West Coast ahead of their game against the Oakland Raiders and ahead of Hurricane Katrina’s expected landfall in Louisiana that week.
We well know what happened while they were gone.
The Saints played as nomads in 2005, a team without a real home. Their “home” opener was at the Meadowlands in New Jersey against the Giants. Their other seven home games were split between Baton Rouge and San Antonio, which was their home base for the season.
For all our love of the Saints, their 3-13 season was far from anyone’s minds that year. We weren’t so affected when they fired the staff after that season. We felt bad for them, but we were too busy feeling down for ourselves.
So you’ll have to forgive the Who Dat Nation when they signed Dallas assistant and Bill Parcells coaching tree member Sean Payton. There was a collective “who?” from the fans, still picking up the pieces from the storm.
Two months later, Payton brought in Drew Brees to be the franchise QB. Saints fans only knew Brees from his four-touchdown performance against the Saints in 2004. And we knew he was coming off a major injury.
You’ll have to forgive the Saints fans if they were a little shell-shocked when Brees walks in and says he and his wife truly want to be a part of the rebuilding of this city and bringing a new culture to the team.
We were appreciative of all the help anyone wanted to give us. We knew he was going to play football, hopefully well. But to really be a part of the rebirth of a city? How?
The Saints ad campaign slogan of 2005 was “You Gotta’ Have Faith”. They should have saved it for the 2006 season.
Faith was really a hallmark of the rebirth of the city and the rebuilding of the Saints. It was something Drew Brees knew well. More than just religious, but wholly spiritual – the idea that even though you can’t see it, you have to believe in it.
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Brees blew out his knee his junior year of high school, so recruiters had less faith in a short kid without a huge stat line being successful at a big school. While he was quite successful at Purdue, he was passed over in the first round.
He was benched in San Diego multiple times. They hired his successor while Brees was still their starter. After his injury, they offered him peanuts to stay on there. Not much faith in him there. But Brees knew he could be a real player in this league.
Brees went to Miami and met with then-coach Nick Saban about taking the job there. He never felt the pull there.
They didn’t have faith in him. He came to New Orleans and the coaches and city opened their arms to him. Brees was coming off a major shoulder injury and was still rehabbing. He was looking for someplace that had as much belief in him as he had in himself.
Sean Payton talked about creating an offense that fit Brees’ game. As they toured the storm-ravaged city, something spoke to Brees; a calling beyond football. Some deeper meaning. He knew he needed this city. The city was mounting a comeback and he was too.
He didn’t know this city needed him too.
We know the football story. Even the TV broadcast team for ESPN still speaks of the chills they got for their Monday Night Football jaunt to the rebuilt Superdome in the Saints’ first game back home. It was a special year and a special team.
In 2006, not only did Drew Brees lead the Saints to their second playoff win – and then their third – but the Saints scrappy overachievers went all the way to the NFC Championship game on the arm of a guy who spent eight months rehabbing his immensely damaged shoulder.
It was the beginning of an era unlike any other in the Crescent City. Forget the “Aint’s” and the bags – people were speaking of this team no longer as a doormat, but as a peer in the league.
And yes, it took some years and some work to create consistency, but the Saints have been one of the better teams in the league for a while and are never thought of in the same way as they had been before 2000 for sure, but specifically before 2006. And Drew Brees is at the middle of all that.
For his football legacy, he retires with the most passing yards in NFL history, the second-most touchdowns and completions in NFL history, the most 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, and the highest completion percentage of any QB with over 2,000 passes in NFL history, and most consecutive games throwing a TD pass, among other accolades.
But for New Orleanians, it’s so much more than football. It’s more than Jimmy John’s and Dunkin’ franchises and ESPN commercials in a float. It’s donating millions to COVID relief. It’s the tens of millions he’s spent of his own money and the countless millions his name and presence have raised for other causes in the region.
It’s the money to causes like the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Louisiana Children’s Museum. And it’s hands-on too – going out and physically putting in the work, not just speaking about the work to be done or throwing money at it.
It’s for reasons like this, and the person that he is, that he is number one in the NFL in sponsor money. He makes more from endorsements than any other NFL player. Think of that when you watch the next insurance commercial with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
We love Drew Brees. Much of the NFL does as well. We all marvel at his accomplishments. And yes, we are glad that not only has Brees become the greatest player in New Orleans Saints history, but he’s also become one of the all-time greats in NFL history.
Career complete, the next stop is a first-ballot trip to Canton, Ohio.
Just understand that for the New Orleans area, Brees means so much more than that.
We had faith and that faith paid off. To this day, New Orleanians walk up to Brees and rather than say congratulations for any of his accomplishments on the field, they say “thank you” for who he has been off it.