By Scott Fragale
For veteran New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, this season, his time with the Saints, and basically his entire NFL career have always been about changing perceptions. Whether it’s been trying to convince scouts his then 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound frame could withstand the rigors of the NFL, or trying to get those same scouts to believe he had the arm strength to make all the necessary throws at the next level, there have always been skeptics.
More recently, Brees needed to quiet the naysayers who said he’d never be the same after reconstructive shoulder surgery. Then, after finding a new home with the Saints and successfully rejuvenating a Pro Bowl caliber career in Bayou Country, Brees faced the daunting challenge of resurrecting a franchise and a city defined by a history of futility. In addition to that, Brees had to overcome a disinterested fan base in a city ravaged by the most devastating hurricane this country has ever known.
Now, nearly five years after signing with New Orleans, Brees has successfully changed those perceptions from a nightmare into a career most can only dream of.
When Brees entered the league in 2001 as a second-round pick of the San Diego Chargers, many of those same skeptics wondered if his lack of size or a college career directing a pass-happy spread offense at Purdue would translate to NFL success. After almost single-handedly transforming the Saints from pretender to contender, Brees has now set his sights on a new, once-unthinkable mission: a perfect season culminating with a Super Bowl title. While it remains to be seen if Brees and the Saints can close this sale, according to those closest to the team, what he’s accomplished thus far is nothing short of miraculous no matter the outcome.
“Brees was welcomed (to New Orleans) with open arms, largely because of the discontent from the fan base with former Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks,” said Saints columnist Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune in Louisiana. “Basically anyone other than Brooks would have been welcome but when the Saints were able to recruit and sign a proven NFL starter, well, they were ecstatic. Brees was seen as a worthwhile gamble, despite his shoulder problem, and fans loved that the club outbid Miami for his services and he was willing to take a chance on New Orleans at a time when the city was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Having said that, I don’t think anyone anticipated he would evolve into a Hall of Fame-level player and the greatest player in the history of the franchise. But that’s exactly what happened.”
With four games remaining on the schedule, the gamble Saints’ executives took in signing Brees might go down as one of the best free-agent signings in league history. Brees has demonstrated no ill effects of the shoulder injury he suffered in San Diego and in leading a high-powered New Orleans offense, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year has worked his way into this year’s MVP race as well as now being considered among the quarterback elite.
“There definitely were concerns and they were legitimate. Brees’ shoulder surgery was serious,” Duncan said. “There was a reason a quarterback of his caliber was available on the open market and only two teams – the Saints and Dolphins – offered him contracts. The red flags were up. But give the Saints credit for doing their homework on Brees and spending the extra time with him to justify their investment. They basically gambled on Brees’ character and competitive nature.”
Strong character and work ethic have allowed Brees to soar both on and off the field. In a time when the city of New Orleans needed a hero and a leader, Brees has delivered time and time again. After drafting Reggie Bush with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Bush was expected to be the high-profile star who could turn around the fortunes of a team known more for their bag-wearing fans than winning games. Fast forward three years later, and it’s been Brees and not the oft-injured Bush, who has led the Saints to a perfect 12-0 mark and in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
“Brees is the unquestioned leader of the team and he has the respect of every person in the entire organization,” Duncan said. “Since he’s been here, he has replaced Reggie Bush as the face of the franchise. His skills on the football field are obvious. But he’s also an ambassador not only for the franchise but for the entire city of New Orleans. I made the case in a preseason column that he wields more influence in his organization than any other player, with the possible exception of Peyton Manning.”
With a firm grip on his strong community ties and within his numerous charitable foundations, Brees has been able to focus on what he does best – playing football. With his attention focused solely on football, Brees has been able to put up some spectacular numbers. Through the first 12 games, he has posted an NFL-best (111.3) quarterback ranking, completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, and is leading the NFL with 29 touchdowns. Brees is on pace to again threaten the all-time record for passing yards in a season (5,084) and could set the all-time mark for most 300-yard games (10) in a season if he can better the mark in his final four matchups.
Brees’ on-field efforts have translated into success in the sports memorabilia market as well. After once being considered a middle-tier player in terms of his autographed memorabilia and collectibles in general, Brees’ outstanding play in New Orleans has made his items some of the most sought after in the industry.
“He’s on fire right now. He wasn’t when he first arrived here, but I think people have seen that he’s a really good community guy and has been playing so well on the field that he’s really taken off,” said Mark Channing, owner of Markman Sports Card and Collectibles in New Orleans. “It was Marques Colston for a while and then it was Reggie Bush, but Brees is definitely the man right now. I’m having a tough time trying to keep his items in stock. And replacing his items through the Internet is tough, too, because he’s popular on a national level, not just around here.”
Someone who has first-hand knowledge of Brees rising nationwide appeal is GT Sports Marketing owner, Gary Takahashi. Takahashi holds an exclusive autograph contract with Brees and understands that while Brees is on the fast track to superstar status in the NFL and the hobby, a perfect regular season coupled with a Super Bowl run will vault him into the same stratosphere as the Mannings, the Bradys and Favres of the world.
“Brees is the hottest QB in football. His autographs are in higher demand than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady because there has been less product available in the past and this year Brees has cemented himself among the top quarterbacks,” Takahashi said. “Brees is as professional as Joe Montana and Troy Aikman at autograph signings. He’s a veteran and knows how to treat and appreciate clients and fans.
“The demand for Brees’ autograph has definitely increased since he joined the Saints. He helped transform that program from a perennial laughingstock to an offensive powerhouse, and this year, a legitimate contender,” Takahashi said. “A deep playoff run will likely bump him up to the next level, but it’s going to take a Superbowl win to put him in the elite class.”
In the last few years Brees has answered all the questions people have ever had about him.He’s become an elite quarterback when few believed he would ever be the same after undergoing major surgery and he’s become one of the few athletes fans can count on both on and off the field.
Changing the perception that he can’t win the big one appears next on Brees’ to-do list. And with the track record he has, how can you bet against him. SCM