Drew Brees's Place in History

by Aaron Schatz

Brian S. asks:

What are the chances Drew Brees passes either Tom Brady or Payton Manning (or both) to be considered the best quarterback of this generation? Over the last four years, his numbers stack up against those two pretty impressively, don't they?

Over the last two years, absolutely. Over the last four years, not particularly. Over the whole decade, it isn't close, especially if we compare Brees to Manning. (Brady's reputation was built on "leadership" and "winning" and he didn't have the numbers of a top quarterback until 2004.)

The main advanced stats at Football Outsiders are DVOA (value per play) and DYAR (total value). There isn't space to explain how it all works here, so I'll point people who aren't familiar with our work to this page.

Peyton Manning ranked first in DVOA in 2000 and then every year from 2003 through 2008 except for 2007, when he was second to Brady. Last year he was fifth. In total value, DYAR, he has ranked second for three straight years and ranked first for four straight years before that.

As noted before, Tom Brady's reputation was bigger than his numbers at first, but he has now ranked in the top five in DYAR each year since 2004, except for the year he was injured. In 2007 he had the greatest statistical season of any quarterback in history. Last year, despite the conventional opinion that he wasn't fully recovered from his injury, he still led the league in total value by our calculations, in part because we adjust for schedule. Tom Brady in 2009 played the hardest schedule of opposing pass defenses of any quarterback since at least 1993.

Drew Brees just hasn't quite reached these heights. He has never led the league in DVOA, and only led the league in DYAR once, in 2008. His colossal numbers come in part because the Saints offense threw the ball so much in 2007 and 2008 in an attempt to make up for the team's lousy defense. In addition, Brees' first two years as a starter, 2002 and 2003, were far, far worse than the initial seasons for Manning and Brady.

Right now, it's hard to argue with the idea that Brees is on the same level as Manning and Brady. But if you ask "who was the best quarterback of the decade," the conversation starts and ends with Manning and Brady. Brees won't make it into the conversation about the best quarterback of the next generation, either—that will end up as Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, or somebody we haven't seen play in the NFL yet, perhaps Sam Bradford.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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