With Saints banged up, Brees elevates his game

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Brady has been disqualified by injury and Peyton Manning -- for the moment -- by circumstance.

That leaves open the question that was closed for so long: Who's the best quarterback in the NFL?

Maybe it's already been answered. Everywhere you look in the league's passing statistics, Drew Brees is at, or very near, the top. You could leave Denver's Jay Cutler in the argument until you throw in degree of difficulty.

Cutler's doing it with Brandon Marshall, who just might be the league's best receiver, and Eddie Royal, who just might be the best rookie receiver. He has a coach (Mike Shanahan) who's been called a genius and a bunch of other weapons.

Brees is doing it with smoke, mirrors and healthy dose of screen and swing passes to Reggie Bush. And Brees is making it look easy.

"It's never easy. Never, ever easy,'' Brees said. "Your preparation throughout the week can make it easier. The more comfortable you are, the calmer you will be because you understand where the ball is going to go, no matter what the coverage or the situation. That's what allows you to be successful out there, the preparation. You're always trying to envision every scenario. That way, when game day comes around, it's as if it's always happened.''

As big as he is on preparation, there's no way Brees could have envisioned how things have played out in the first four games. Already one of the league's better quarterbacks, it's not especially surprising that Brees has become the best with Brady out for the season with an injury and Manning playing very ordinary football.

What is truly shocking is that Brees has been able to do it with a supporting cast of guys who were supposedly practice-squad players and busts. The star-studded cast he opened the season with has disappeared.

Top receiver Marques Colston went out with a thumb injury in the opener and probably won't be back for at least a few more weeks. Tight end Jeremy Shockey, the top pickup of the offseason, went down with a sports hernia and could miss a few more games. Throw in a few other injuries on offense, the four-game suspension of starting guard Jamar Nesbit and New Orleans' reluctance to use veteran running back Deuce McAllister in the first three games and it's a minor miracle the Saints have been able to move the ball at all.

But they're moving it quite nicely because of Brees. He's the reason the Saints -- who have had even more injuries to the defense -- have been able to keep their heads above water. The Saints are 2-2 heading into Monday night's game with Minnesota and Brees has been putting up huge numbers throwing to the likes of Lance Moore and Robert Meachem.

"It just shows if you do the right things, eventually good things will happen to you,'' Brees said. "Lance was on the practice squad at one point in his career where he was just running scout team for the defense. Robert Meachem ran scout team every day last year for the defense. Those guys have paid their dues and now they're reaping the benefits.''

That's mainly because of Brees' cerebral play and accurate arm. He leads the league in completions (107), completion percentage (72.3), yards (1,343) and yards per game (335.8).

There have been constant changes in personnel and not much consistency in the running game until the Saints unleashed McAllister last week. That's allowed opposing defenses to focus all their efforts on stopping Brees and they've thrown a steady diet of blitzes and different coverages at him.

But take a stroll back through the tapes of the first four games and it's hard to find a play where Brees looked flustered.

"It happens from time to time,'' Brees said. "You always have to expect the unexpected. At times, you'll see something where you are not quite sure what that was when you look at the picture when you come to the sideline trying to figure it out. That way I can try to see it coming the next time. Defenses are always evolving, trying to stay one step ahead of you, just like you're trying to stay one step ahead of them. It's a chess match.''

It's a chess match Brees is winning without all the pieces of his offense. It's not going to be that way forever. The Saints are hoping Colston and Shockey can return around midseason and the re-emergence of McAllister has given the ground game hope.

If Brees can do this well without a full supporting cast, imagine what he can do when he has it. When all is said and done, he could be in the lofty perch usually reserved for Manning and Brady.