NFL

Just How Bad Was Drew Brees in 2014?

The Saints failed to reach the postseason, but was it all Brees’ fault?

Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and will one day end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Before the 2014 season, the above statement would have been met with little more than silent agreement by nearly any educated football observer. I mean, the guy’s career stats are out of this world, and he has secured the ever-elusive Super Bowl ring that sometimes serves as the tiebreaker between being a great quarterback, and the all-time great quarterback. He also finished tied with Ben Roethlisberger for the most passing yards this season (4,952).

And yet, with the 2014 regular season now in the books, there is a narrative floating around the football community that goes something like this: “What’s wrong with Drew Brees?”

His fantasy owners who got burned in weeks 16 and 17 -- probably make up a large portion of the crowd posing that question -- and in fairness, Brees’s 2014 fantasy production was marred by inconsistent performances.

But setting hurt feelings aside, has this been the worst season in Drew Brees's tenure in New Orleans? And if so, is he the main reason why the Saints failed to reach their lofty preseason expectations?

Let’s find out.

Raw Numbers

Brees has been a full-time NFL starter for 13 seasons. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times. He’s led the league in passing yards five times, touchdown passes four times, and passer rating once. He has eclipsed 5,000 passing yards four times and 40 touchdown passes twice.

It’s clear that Brees has been a statistical stalwart throughout his career, especially during his time in New Orleans. While he did not set any career bests in passing yardage or touchdowns this year, the table below shows that his 2014 season, from a raw statistical perspective, is really not far off his career average.

AttemptsCompletionsCompletion %Passing YardsTDINT
201465945669.2%4,9523317
Average62742367.5%4,8533515

In every statistical category -- attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions -- Brees has come close, matched, or even exceed his previous seasonal averages. So by simply glancing at his cumulative stats, it would be fair to assume Brees was once again a top fantasy signal-caller, and that the Saints were gearing up for a playoff run.

While simple statistics do tell part of the story, it can be extremely helpful to dive a little deeper into the numbers to find a player’s true value to his team and, therefore, his overall value. That’s where our advanced metrics here at numberFire come into play. Metrics such as Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) show exactly how valuable a player by indicating points gained or lost for his team based on his passing performances.

Here is how Brees has fared since joining New Orleans in 2006.

Passing NEPPassing NEP/Drop BackSuccess Rate
2014119.68 (6)0.17 (7)53.34% (3)
2013175.57 (2)0.26 (6)53.34% (3)
2012144.37 (4)0.21 (5)51.72% (7)
2011235.48 (1)0.35 (2)56.09% (2)
2010115.31 (4)0.17 (7)52.56% (3)
2009169.92 (3)0.32 (3)56.18% (1)
2008173.89 (1)0.27 (1)53.32% (3)
200776.28 (7)0.11 (8)53.81% (3)
2006136.32 (2)0.24 (2)50.87% (2)
In parenthesis are Brees’s yearly rankings among passers with at least 400 drop backs.

The first thing that jumps off the page here is Brees’s astounding consistency when it comes to his Success Rate -- the percentage of passes that contribute positively to a player’s Passing NEP. Aside from 2012, he has ranked in the top three in the category every single year since he came to New Orleans.

The next thing we should notice is that his numbers in the other two categories are among the lowest he has recorded in the last nine seasons. His metrics from 2007 are the only thing saving him from this season literally being the worst as a Saint. The fact that Brees can post one of his worst seasons ever efficiency-wise, and still tie for the league lead in passing yardage is astounding, but it proves that high volume passing games don't always lead to successful seasons.

So while it’s easy to blame the quarterback when a team underachieves, it’s simply not smart analysis to leave it at that. The Rob Ryan-led defense saw a sharp decline in defensive efficiency from a season ago -- ranking dead-last in overall defense efficiency adjusted for strength of schedule. Last year, the Saints finished 10th in overall defense. This drastic decline played, at least, as large a role in the Saints’ disappointing 2014 campaign as did Brees’ year.

While 2014 will go down as one of Drew Brees’s worst seasons in New Orleans from an efficiency standpoint, he was still in the top seven in the three key metrics for quarterbacks, and his career-long legacy is likely to be unaffected by this one season. If he bounces back next season and plays at a level closer to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing, this season may fade from our memories.

However, if Brees struggles again in 2015, it may be time to re-evaluate what we can expect moving forward from one of the best statistical quarterbacks ever to play the game as he enters the twilight of his career.