Week 8 NFL QB awards: Brees' magnificent return; Allen stymied by the Niners

The narrative is too easy. It would go something like this: Limited by a surgically repaired thumb, Drew Brees used veteran savvy to beat the Cardinals with the kind of short, easy passes a high schooler could complete.

It's true that 65% of Brees' passes Sunday traveled 5 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed 26 of 28 such passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns in the Saints' 31-9 victory over Arizona. But was that by design? Or did the Cardinals' defensive approach simply leave those throws open?

We'll start there for ESPN's Week 8 QB Awards, our Tuesday assessment of highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.

Best Comeback Award: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Brees beat most expectations for his recovery from a torn thumb ligament, returning Sunday after five missed starts despite the fact that the Saints have a Week 9 bye on deck. And the Cardinals showed clear intention of wanting to rush a player who might not have been completely confident in his physical aptitude, blitzing him on 46.5% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate for a team in Week 8.

Brees responded with one of his most impressive accomplishments in recent years. He completed 17 of 20 passes against the blitz, with an average gain of 12.3 yards per reception. Brees hadn't completed that many passes against the blitz since at least 2006, when ESPN Stats & Information began tracking the metric, and no NFL quarterback has connected on more than 17 passes in that situation during the 2019 season.

His receivers piled on 235 yards after the catch, third-most in an NFL game this season. But none of it would have been possible without Brees' calm assimilation of an obvious defensive strategy. Sunday's performance should erase any doubt that Brees can lead the Saints to another deep playoff run during the second half of the season.

Exposed by Great Defense Award: Kyle Allen, Carolina Panthers

Entering Sunday's game at Levi's Stadium, Allen was on the verge of generating a genuine quarterback debate for the Panthers. He had won his first four starts of the season in place of the injured Cam Newton, in the process throwing seven touchdowns without an interception. But he withered, as many other quarterbacks have and will continue to, when facing the 49ers' increasingly potent defense.

The 49ers managed to sack Allen six times, grab three interceptions and limit him to a completion rate of 47.1% -- all while sticking almost entirely to their base pass-rushing package. They sent four or fewer pass-rushers on 44 of his dropbacks.

It's easy to say that Allen finally crashed back to earth, but context is important. Certainly, Allen made his share of mistakes. But shouldn't we give a big portion of the credit to a defense that is strong enough to harass a quarterback almost exclusively without using the blitz? The 49ers' defensive front, led by rookie Nick Bosa, is exceptional. Allen no doubt wishes he had played better, but we should be careful about judging him too harshly in light of the nature of his opponent.

It's Getting Interesting Award: Gardner Minshew II, Jacksonville Jaguars

While Allen got humbled a bit in Week 8, Minshew turned in the first performance -- albeit against the woeful Jets -- that genuinely has the Jaguars mulling what to do when starter Nick Foles returns from a fractured collarbone.

Generally speaking, NFL teams should feel fortunate to go .500 when a starter is sidelined. The Jaguars are 4-3 in Minshew's starts, and on Sunday, Minshew demonstrated the skill level of a veteran in several areas:

  • He threw for 206 yards against the blitz, more than he had in the three previous games combined.

  • He also established career highs with eight completions and an average of 9.5 yards per attempt on third down.

  • His pair of touchdown passes outside of the pocket showed an increased comfort level with making off-schedule plays.

Where will all of this lead? I have assumed that Foles' $30 million in guarantees this season, and his $15.125 million guaranteed for 2020, made him the heavy favorite to regain his job. But coach Doug Marrone declined to commit to that scenario Sunday.

For the first time, it feels as though there is at least a chance that the Jaguars will have the NFL's highest-paid backup quarterback during the second half of the season.

Dime of the Week: Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts

With his team trailing by a point to the Broncos with 1:42 remaining Sunday, Brissett executed one of the best escape-and-throw combinations that we've seen this season. He eluded two pass-rushers at the Colts' own goal line, scrambled a total of 23.1 yards and sprinted toward the sideline at a top speed of 13.8 miles per hour, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Spotting receiver T.Y. Hilton near the right sideline, Brissett fired the ball 34 air yards downfield in 1.9 seconds. It was one of only two passes this season of at least 33 air yards that reached its target in less than two seconds. In other words, it was a dart.

Hilton caught the pass 0.4 of a yard from the sideline, but with enough space to get both feet in bounds. The pass carried a completion probability of 24.7%, the 10th-most difficult pass to be completed in Week 8. When you put it all together and consider the timing in the game, though, it was truly exceptional.

Floater of the Week: Matt Moore, Kansas City Chiefs

You could watch football for a long time and never see a touchdown throw quite like the one Moore directed to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on Sunday night.

Officially, the scoring play went for 29 yards. In reality, it was a pop fly that Moore threw so high and so softly that Kelce had time to turn around and run 19.5 yards while the ball was in the air in order to chase it down at the Packers' 6-yard line and take it to the end zone, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The ball was in the air for 2.37 seconds, longer than any touchdown pass of fewer than 40 air yards over the past three seasons.