Is Drew Brees Underrated?

There are more quarterbacks out there besides Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

"Winning isn't everything – it’s the only thing" – Vince Lombardi.

Contrary to popular opinion, wins aren't everything as Lombardi thought, at least when it comes to comparing players. However, wins seem to be the go-to statistic when comparing the greats. Especially quarterbacks.

Because quarterbacks, especially future Hall of Fame ones, are compared with each other through wins, other quarterbacks that are just as good are overlooked if they aren’t winning.

Wins need context. Did the defense make a huge stop (e.g. Richard Sherman’s deflection)? Was the quarterback saved from his horrible play by his defense? Did the running game do so well that the quarterback didn’t have to do much? How did the team win the game and how did the quarterback contribute?

The worst thing about quarterback comparisons is when quarterback “A” sets a significant record, but the mainstream media is all worried about how quarterbacks “B” and “C” did playing against each other. I say we stop comparing quarterbacks on wins. There are more advanced metrics available to use.

In the example above, Quarterback "A" could be considered Drew Brees. In Week 14, he became the fifth, and quickest, quarterback to amass 50,000 passing yards. Instead of analyzing the feat, folks were more worried about Peyton Manning (Quarterback "B") and Tom Brady (Quarterback "C"), two quarterbacks who had faced off against one another in the week prior. Forget Brees' accomplishments - it's more important, to some, to look at a game matchup between quarterbacks.

Signal-callers obviously contribute heavily to the game due to the control they have during the contest. If we take a look at our Passing Net Expected Points data, however, we can compare any quarterback we want on a much deeper level. As we dig deep on Brees, Manning, and Brady, you will see that Drew Brees is just as good as the spotlight stars. You could argue that he's been better of late.

Pre-Super Bowl Brees

In 2006, the Saints brought in Drew Brees despite his recovery from shoulder surgery. Joining him was current head coach Sean Payton. In their first year together, the team went 10-6, won the NFC South, and lost to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. Brees had a solid year though, showing that he had the potential talent to share the spotlight with Manning and Brady. Below is a comparison of Brees, Brady, and Manning from that 2006 season, as well as the two years after.

YearPlayerPass YardsPass TDPass NEPPass NEP/PPass Success Rate

According to our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) data, Brees wasn't far behind the two prolific passers despite an off year in 2007, his only season with the Saints where he contributed below 100 Passing Net Expected Points. Brees finished with a higher Passing NEP than Manning in 2008, contributing more for his team through the air than Manning did for his.

We all know the reason Manning and Brady are always in the spotlight is because of wins. Brady had one of his worst seasons in 2006, yet he still won 12 games, losing in the AFC Championship (to Manning, of course). The Patriots' passer has averaged 12 wins a season throughout his career, and never won less than nine in a given season. Manning had two seasons were he won less than 10 games, averaging 11 wins a season over his career. Brees, on the other hand, has averaged nine wins a season throughout his career, but that was in no small effort on his part. He did everything he could, but his defense didn't always back him up.

TeamAdj D PNEPTeam RankAdj D RNEPTeam Rank
2006 IND27.422166.9532
2006 NE-47.196-25.137
2006 NO5.961620.0426
2007 IND-35.235-18.9414
2007 NE-56.7820.6223
2007 NO109.2832-2.0718
2008 IND44.181916.9723
2008 NO55.412326.1224

The numbers above reflect our defensive NEP metrics, which are adjusted (Adj.) for strength of schedule. Just for reference, a negative number is good - that means they're taking points away from the offense, playing above expectation.

In 2006, the season where Tom Brady was at his worst despite winning 12 games, Brady was backed by a defense that ranked in the top 10 against both the pass and rush. Even if Brady had a bad game, the defense was there to pick up the pieces, netting Brady "the win".

Brees, who had the eighth-highest Passing NEP in 2007, won just seven games. His fault? Probably not, as the Saints had the worst pass defense, and a run defense that was a little below average. That type of defensive performance has been the norm for Brees throughout his career, perhaps skewing the way some folks view him.

The Glory Years

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have hogged the spotlight in revolutionizing the passing game in the NFL over the last five seasons. Drew Brees deserves just as much attention in helping. While Brady and Manning were winning, Brees was out setting records.

During 2009 to today, here's how each of their numbers stack up against each other.

YearPlayerPass YardsPass TDPass NEPPass NEP/PPass Success Rate

In 2009, the Saints put together a prolific offense, as they were tops in the league in total yards as well as total points scored (40 points ahead of the next closest team). The Patriots were sixth, the Colts were seventh. In the process, Brees was one of 10 quarterbacks to throw over 4,000 yards. His 34 touchdown passes led the league, with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre finishing with one less touchdown pass. Brees finished third in Passing NEP among 27 quarterbacks that dropped back to pass at least 300 times.

Brees also finished in second in Passing NEP on a per drop back basis, leading the Saints to 13 victories in a row that year. The 0.32 Passing NEP per drop back was only bested by Philip Rivers’ mark of 0.34. Brees’ Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that contributed positively towards his NEP, was tops in the league. As a result, the team ended up winning the Super Bowl.

2011 was a lot of the same. Manning missed the season, so Brees finally had a chance to win the MVP award. But then the Super Bowl winning Packers went on a tear, winning 19 games in a row (going back to 2010), finishing the season 15-1. Aaron Rodgers had his best year as a pro and went on to win the MVP award that year. Brees finished second yet again, and it was even more of a blowout than when Brees lost to Manning in 2009. However, it was the Saints quarterback with a higher Passing NEP, not Green Bay's passer.

Brees had a down year in 2012, but he was without head coach Sean Payton for the first time in his career as a Saint. He maintained his yards thrown and touchdown passes, but had his worst Success Rate since 2006. Brees turned only 51.72% of his drop backs into a positive NEP gain.

Brees' Success Rate rose to 53.34% this year, but that wasn't the only good thing to happen, as Payton arrived back on the scene. Brees and the Saints won 11 games and made it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. He also surpassed 5,000 yards passing for the third year in a row.

Despite his passing success, the wins, and his second-ranked Passing NEP in 2013, Brees was still being overlooked as an MVP candidate. Russell Wilson and Tom Brady garnered more attention for the award than Brees did, despite having efficiency scores that were half as good as Brees'.

In all, since 2009, Brees has contributed more points than both Brady and Manning in the passing game with a total Passing NEP of 840.65. However, Manning didn't play in the 2011 season. Even with that, Manning still has the better better Passing NEP than Tom Brady (770.57 to 758.76). There's little doubt that Manning would have had a better Passing NEP than Brees had he played that season (would need about 70 Passing Net Expected Points, which he does every season), but nevertheless, Brees has been playing at an incredibly high level in comparison. And we have to remember that Manning's numbers are stronger due to his record-breaking 2013 campaign.

Let's Talk About Brees More

In essence, wins don't tell the whole story when comparing quarterbacks. Breaking records, while great, don’t tell the story either, I know. But they indicate what a player has contributed to the game. And when we can dig deeper with advanced metrics, we see an even better picture.

While Brady is today's Montana, Brees is almost like Dan Marino, even though he has a ring. Manning, to be truthful, is incomparable. But when it comes down to it, Brees deserves to be in the same conversation as Manning and Brady. In fact, Brees may be the better comparison for Manning alone, especially since 2009.