Drew Brees is a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. Of that, there is no doubt.
Originally a Chargers second-round pick in 2001, Brees has turned into one of the best quarterbacks of all time since arriving with the Saints in 2006. Now in his 12th season with New Orleans, and 17th season overall, the 38-year-old quarterback is No. 3 all time in yards passing (68,894) and No. 3 in passing touchdowns (480).
Brees was a solid quarterback in his five seasons with the Chargers. But he's become the quarterback everyone has come to know and respect under head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans.
Payton and Brees have one of the longest coach-quarterback relationships in the league, and that manifests itself on a weekly basis.
"I think the very first and obvious one is just the amount of time — 11 years for me, 12 years for him in the system," Payton said this week. "There's nuances of course, over the years there is personnel that change, receivers or tight ends, running backs and you're always kind of paying attention to your own team and putting wrinkles in that fit maybe what you want to do and there is that database, let's just say, of reps or remembering certain games or plays.
"So, I think No. 1 would just be the time on task. In today's NFL, that is not always the norm and then the continuity within the staff — [Saints offensive coordinator] Pete Carmichael has been here for all 12 of those seasons — so really there hadn't been an offensive change in regards to terminology. There's been some constants and obviously there have been additions and subtractions and things you do differently, but that would be a starting point I think."
That continuity has Brees still playing at an elite level in 2017, as he's completed a league-leading 71.6 percent of his passes for 2,783 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was the Chargers' defensive coordinator in the mid-2000s when Brees was San Diego's quarterback, and said he's admired Brees throughout his career. And with 242 games of experience, Brees is particularly difficult to surprise. There's pretty much nothing he hasn't seen.
"Not only does he see things, he studies," Phillips said. "If a guy has a different stance, if a guy puts his hands on his hips and does this" — Phillips motioned to his hips — "then he's going to blitz. He knows those things, too.
"Like a lot of players in the league, a lot of players have talent, but he has great talent and he learned to utilize it," Phillips continued. "So, I admire him for the way he prepares. The Peyton Manning-type preparation — that's Drew Brees."
But if there's one factor in this year's Saints team that has bought it to an 8-2 record after finishing 7-9 for the three straight years, it's the emergence of New Orleans' run game.
The Saints are currently No. 3 in rushing, led by Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. The two have combined for 1,265 yards rushing and 1,925 yards from scrimmage this season.
"I think anytime you're having a decent amount of success running the football you've got to be able to block the perimeter well with the receivers," Payton said, also complimenting the offensive line for setting the tone up front. "Mark and Alvin have done a real good job."
Payton also credited Adrian Peterson — who the Saints traded to the Cardinals midseason — for his influence on the group. "[C]ertainly they looked up to just his work and attention to detail and I think that, like anything, you begin to do a few things and you just keep working on getting better at it. But, the continuity on the offensive line, the depth at tackle and obviously Mark and Alvin have complemented each other pretty well."
Phillips said the run game with Ingram and Kamara has been the biggest difference with this year's Saints offense.
"They've got the best running game they've had since they won the Super Bowl and I think that's the real key," Phillips said. "They're really powerful offensively now. They can run the ball and win or they can throw the ball and win. Before, it was all on [Brees] and this year's team is different."
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Mark Ingram has been a quality running back since he came out of Alabama in 2011, but eclipsed 1,000 yards for the first time in 2016. One of his marquee games last year came against Los Angeles, as he rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown in New Orleans' 48-21 victory.
But Kamara has aded a significant amount of value to the Saints' backfield. Many times, New Orleans will rotate in the rookie out of Tennessee with Ingram on the same drive, providing a two-pronged attack. Kamara has also been a solid pass catcher, making 49 receptions for 447 yards with three touchdowns. He's received the second-most targets on the team behind wide receiver Michael Thomas.
"They remind me of Atlanta last year," Phillips said. "Two different backs, but they're both especially good. One of them is more into the running game, the other is more into the passing game, so both of them give you problems at both. Kamara is really the big threat out of the backfield and of course Ingram is running the ball. But, they can do either one, so planning for both of them is not easy because, like I said, they can interchange or both do run and pass. But you've got stop Ingram from running the football and I think you've got to stop the other guy from catching the ball as much as you can and then try to hold them down in the other area."
But even if those running backs get slowed down, the Saints have a dynamic playmaker in second-year receiver Michael Thomas. The wideout out of Ohio State leads the team with 65 receptions for 753 yards and has caught a pair of touchdowns.
"Mike was kind of one of those players where we were hoping we had an opportunity to get him on our team," Payton said. "Fortunately, we were able to. He's very competitive, he's got strong hands in traffic and it's very important to him. I would say his work ethic, the attention to detail — those intangible things have served him well."