For the first time in 20 years, the NFL season is about to kick off without Drew Brees behind center. But as the New Orleans Saints icon transitions into his next gig as an NFL and Notre Dame analyst for NBC -- his college debut is Saturday -- he can still wield one of his most remarkable skills:
With the help of ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, we came up with questions designed to tap into the memory bank of this future Hall of Famer. Brees reflected on his favorite throws, the ones that got away and the unheralded defender who was “like a rolling ball of butcher knives.”
And he nearly gave away his secret to making that goal-line touchdown leap so automatic.
What’s the one throw you want to make with a game on the line?
Brees: “I always loved just the high back-shoulder. On an interior seam route -- so not necessarily a seam route down the sideline. Up the hash or up the numbers. There was just such an art to that type a throw and such a feel between quarterback, receiver. It was a little bit of poetry in motion.”
Obviously, I think back to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham. Is it because you loved it that it was such a Saints staple?
Brees: “Probably. And listen, [Saints coach] Sean Payton loved back-shoulder fades. It’s funny -- we’d have all kinds of competitions during training camp, our quarterback challenges and all that. And we’d come up with this point chart in the quarterback room, just to keep ourselves entertained. Stuff like, if you ever ran for 10 yards or more untouched on a play, you got a point; if you threw a touchdown, if you threw a checkdown that went for 10 yards or more before he was touched. And if you threw any back-shoulder throw, you got a point. And then if Payton came over and fist-bumped you because he loved it so much, you got two points.”
Favorite play of your career?
Brees: “Oh, man, that’s hard. I’ll just give one example because it’s the first one that came to mind. It was when we broke the Unitas record with Devery (a 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson to break Johnny Unitas’ record of 47 straight games with a TD pass). We hit a double move against the Chargers, 2012, 'Sunday Night Football.' It was a ‘square-out takeoff’ is what we call it, basically a square-out, out and up.
"So I remember as I was studying that play during the week, I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, there’s one pressure they could run that would be problematic for us.’ There was only one way to pick it up, and it was gonna require me and some communication with the O-line to change protections. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. And I knew I wanted to throw it to the right on Quentin Jammer, because I knew he’d be overly aggressive on the out-and-up. So rarely does a play just go exactly the way that you visualize, but that was one of them.”
Your favorite improvisation -- a play that didn’t go the way it was supposed to?
Brees: “Maybe the spin move against the Falcons (an unlikely 7-yard TD run to force overtime in 2018).
“And you know what was the best part of that, honestly? I had been harping on my (son’s flag football) team, ‘Guys, spin moves are so good because you can’t pull somebody’s flag when they’re spinning.’ I had designed all these drills to do spin moves. So for me to actually score on a play where I bust out this impromptu spin move was just perfect timing.”
One throw you wish you could have back?
Brees: “The one I think about most is probably in the [2018 NFC Championship] against the Rams. There was one in overtime on second down, where we run one of our all-time favorite plays, ‘all-go special,’ and I end up trying to throw the ball to Dan Arnold as he’s running past the Mike linebacker, and we just miss it. But the safety bites really hard, and Tre’Quan Smith [broke open down the sideline]. It would’ve been a game winner, game over, despite everything that happened in that game with the no-call and stuff. It’s not necessarily what happened on the play, but what could’ve happened.”
Is that also the game you look back on as the biggest missed opportunity?
Brees: “We were right there, right? So yeah. It’s really disappointing. But I’d say there was a couple moments if you really ask yourself, ‘What were your years to win it?’ 2011, that game at the Niners [in the divisional round], I mean, man, everything we overcame to put ourselves in position to win that game -- and we would’ve hosted the Giants the next week, I like our chances.
"2018, of course, and just even with the no-call, there were one or two other plays that would’ve been the difference-maker for us. And then to a certain extent last year, I felt like we were a better team than the Bucs and we let that one get away from us and that’s a [divisional-round] game we should win. And listen, we’re gonna have our hands full going to Green Bay [in the NFC title game], but you never know.
"And even 2017, I don’t necessarily think that when you look at the best Saints teams of this era it was a top-three team. And yet we were starting to play our best football at that time of year and obviously should’ve beat Minnesota. And then we would’ve gone to play at Philly, and I liked the way we matched up even though Philly was kind of feeling like a team of destiny a little bit.”
What coverage did you want to see that you knew you could light up?
Brees: “Anytime we got man-to-man coverage with a five-man rush, which means there’s no hole player, there’s no interior player, I always felt like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get the ball out, we’re gonna find a matchup, and you’ve got no way to defend it.’”
Best play a defender ever made against you?
Brees: “Antoine Winfield, 2008, we had that crazy game on Monday night [against the Vikings], Reggie [Bush] had two returns for touchdowns, we miss a field goal at the end. Well, Antoine Winfield blitzed on the backside of a play-action pass. He’s supposed to be picked up, but our tight end thought he wasn’t pressuring, so he goes out on this route. And sure enough, Winfield hits me in a way where he’s trying to pull the ball out and hold on to it at the same time -- and he does. He hits me and literally rips the ball right out of my hands. It was such a great ball-player-type play.”
Was there a defensive player you didn’t want to face?
Brees: “No. I’ll just kind of go back and give you perspective on one of the guys that I thought was such a great football player and was maybe underrated or underappreciated, and that was Zach Thomas. That dude was like a rolling ball of butcher knives. Here he is, this undersized middle linebacker, and yet he would make every tackle. And when he’d hit you, he hit you so damn hard.”
Best play you ever saw another quarterback make?
Brees: “I can’t remember what season it was to open up, but it was Jake Delhomme and the Panthers playing at the Chargers (Week 1, 2008), and they were at about the 20-yard line (actually 14). Last play of the game, Panthers get in empty and just run everybody into the end zone. And Jake throws this ball to the back line of the end zone, high, and just to where the tight end can jump up and grab it and nobody else can. The precision of the throw was just awesome. ... Russell Wilson had one, a scramble play on 'Sunday Night Football,' maybe last year or the year before to Tyler Lockett. It was freakin’ ridiculous. [Patrick] Mahomes’ little throw-across-his-body deal was freakin’ ridiculous. Probably more impressive was his left-handed pass against the Broncos.”
What is your process when you jump at the goal line? Everyone knows it’s coming -- why did it always work?
Brees: “My whole thing was we need to be at about the half-yard line or in, so it doesn’t really work from the 1. And there’s a technique where you almost have to kind of rock back for a moment, just to allow the initial stalemate to happen at the line of scrimmage. And then you’ve gotta have some spring, you’ve gotta have some hops, you’ve gotta be an athlete. And you’ve gotta kind of pick and choose your spot where you want to jump, because obviously there’s dudes that are trying to come knock your face off. But there’s some other nuances to it I can’t divulge.
“I don’t want to give away all my secrets.”