Ring would thrust Brees into Hall debate

MIAMI -- Since signing with the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent four seasons ago, Drew Brees has thrown for more yards than Peyton Manning (18,298 to 16,939), has just as many touchdown passes as the Indianapolis Colts' star (122 each) and owns a passer rating only slightly lower (98.49 to 97.27) than that of the four-time most valuable player.

There is one thing Manning has, however, that is missing from Brees' résumé.

A Super Bowl ring.

Brees, who arrived here Sunday night for the Pro Bowl, concerns himself more with team aspirations than individual pursuits. But in terms of being considered one of the finest quarterbacks of this era and perhaps being eventually debated for Hall of Fame honors, a Super Bowl ring would be a handsome addition to Brees' trophy case.

"I don't know that you necessarily have to win [a Super Bowl ring] to be talked about as an all-time great or to be in [the Hall of Fame]," Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said after Sunday's Pro Bowl game. "But it helps, right?"

Right, indeed.

Not counting George Blanda, who was relegated primarily to place-kicking duties late in his career, 17 quarterbacks from the Super Bowl era have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. All but six of them have at least one Super Bowl win. From that group, only Dan Fouts, Sonny Jurgensen and Warren Moon failed to start in a Super Bowl game.

Led by Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, who have four rings each, the 11 Hall of Fame quarterbacks with at least one Super Bowl victory have a combined 23 championships. Although the somewhat nebulous Hall of Fame criteria do not include a Super Bowl win, a piece of Super Bowl bling certainly doesn't hurt any.

The title "Super Bowl champion" isn't supposed to influence Hall of Fame voters in their deliberations, but there is a subjective bent to the balloting, and the 44 selectors are susceptible to human nature.

"In a way, it sort of validates you," said former Miami Dolphins star Dan Marino, one of the greatest pure passers of all time but a player who appeared in only one Super Bowl and won none. "All of the individual stuff is great … but it's still a team game. And the best [representation] of teamwork is a ring."

It's relatively difficult, being objective, to determine whether Brees' nine NFL seasons qualify significantly for Hall of Fame consideration. As a second-round choice of the San Diego Chargers in 2001, the former Purdue star spent his rookie campaign on the bench behind Doug Flutie, appearing in only one game. Brees won the No. 1 job in 2002, but during his four seasons as the starter, the Chargers won only one AFC West title, advanced to the playoffs once and didn't win a postseason game. Brees threw more interceptions (31) than touchdown passes (28) in his first two years as the starter and only once had more than 25 touchdown passes.

He injured his throwing shoulder in the final game of the 2005 season, creating some doubts as to when he would be healthy again and which teams might bid for his services as a free agent.

But since signing with the Saints in '06 -- after the Dolphins backed off the pursuit because of concerns about his shoulder -- Brees has performed wonderfully on the field and off it. In addition to his prolific statistics, he has become one of the faces of the Gulf Coast, and he and his wife have contributed mightily to the resurrection of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

But does that make him a Hall of Famer?

"He's certainly a Hall of Fame human being," said former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, who hosts a popular New Orleans sports-talk radio show. "And over the course of the last four years, very few people have done what he's done [on the field]."

Brees has thrown for 30,646 yards and 202 touchdowns in his career. That's more yards than six of the 17 Super Bowl-era Hall of Fame quarterbacks and more touchdown passes than five of them. "But," as Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson noted after the NFC Championship Game, "he's hardly finished yet."

For argument's sake, let's assume (probably conservatively) that Brees, 31, has four productive seasons remaining and that his numbers during that period will be commensurate to those he rang up the past four seasons. Under those circumstances, Brees would finish with nearly 50,000 yards and 324 touchdown passes. Of the current Super Bowl-era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, only Marino and John Elway have more than 50,000 yards, and only Marino and Fran Tarkenton have more than 325 touchdown passes.

Kurt Warner, who retired last week, completed his career with 32,344 yards and 208 touchdown passes and is considered a Hall of Fame quarterback in many quarters. Of course, Warner's accomplishments include two league MVP awards, a Super Bowl MVP and a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Brees has none of those yet, but he could own two of the three by Sunday night.

Winning Super Bowl XLIV and culminating the Cinderella season of the Saints would almost certainly catapult Brees into the Hall of Fame discussion.

"I'm not really sure what you've got to do [to merit Hall of Fame consideration], but he's pretty much done it all," New Orleans tailback Pierre Thomas said.

On the other hand, winning a second Super Bowl title would almost certainly land Manning a Hall of Fame bust. Manning, 33, figures to play several more seasons and could own every major NFL passing record by the time he retires. But multiple Super Bowl victories? That all but opens the front door to the Hall of Fame.

Seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks have two or more Super Bowl wins. Of the eligible players (Tom Brady of New England and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger are still active), the only quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls and not be voted into the Hall of Fame is Jim Plunkett of Oakland.

For now, Brees would take just one on Sunday evening, and go from there.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.