Drew Brees can make more history on Monday night against Indianapolis by moving past Peyton Manning (539) for the most touchdown passes in NFL history. Brees sits two behind Manning with 537 touchdowns, or one ahead of Tom Brady (536), who is lucky to throw one a game these days. Brees will attempt to become the 11th player to hold the passing touchdown record since stats became official in 1932.
Future generations are going to wonder a lot about the perception of this golden era of quarterbacks. They are going to wonder how a player of Brees’ caliber never won an MVP award, or how the NFL Top 100 left him out of the top 10 quarterbacks (Don’t be surprised if this happens in a couple of weeks).
Inquisitive fans are going to wonder why Drew Brees wasn’t heavily involved in the debate for the greatest quarterback of all time, and some people are going to dismiss it with “he didn’t win enough” or “he wasn’t clutch enough” and “he was a stat padder.”
Future generations need to know those people are clueless and should be ignored.
Part I: Yes, He’s the Passing King, But…
It’s only fitting that such a passing machine would own the touchdown pass record too. Brees just threw five touchdown passes against San Francisco’s stingy defense on Sunday, setting another record with his 11th game of five or more touchdown passes (Peyton Manning, 10).
Something else happened in Sunday’s game that makes Brees stand alone in history: he lost after putting his team in position late to win. Brees threw his 16th career go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter in a game his team lost. No other quarterback in NFL history has more than nine, and Manning and Brady have four each.
A Brees-led team has now lost 39 games after leading in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in NFL history for a quarterback. Manning (27) and Brady (19) don’t even have 30 such games. It was also the 26th loss for Brees with a passer rating over 100, another NFL record (min. 10 attempts). Manning (11) and Brady (10) have 21 combined.
Brees doesn’t get to reap the glory of shredding a 10-2 team’s No. 2 defense in a really important game. He doesn’t get credit for the 9-point comeback in the fourth quarter after he threw touchdowns on his last two possessions. Instead of being in good position for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs again, the Saints could slip to No. 3 and have to host a Wild Card game before winning two road games to get to the Super Bowl. That’s what happens when you become the second team in NFL history to score at least 46 points at home and lose.
While Sunday might get chalked up as an anomaly for most quarterbacks, this is sadly the latest entry in a long line of painful defeats for Brees. It’s the type of outcome that has kept Brees in the shadow of Manning and Brady throughout his career despite the fact he is about to leave both behind in arguably the most cherished passing record in football.
Brees already owns a plethora of passing records, including the most completions (6,792) and passing yards (76,577) in NFL history. He has five of the 11 seasons with 5,000-yards passing. Brees also has the highest completion percentage (67.5%) in NFL history and could own the three highest single-season marks when 2019 ends. Brees still owns the record for throwing a touchdown pass in 60 consecutive games (including playoffs). The only players to come within 20 games of that are Manning (56 games), Johnny Unitas (49 games), and Brees himself with a 47-game streak that started shortly after his record streak ended.
By the time Brees is done, he may surpass 80,000 yards and 600 touchdown passes. His resume goes well beyond those counting numbers too. Remember for a moment that Brees has been stellar in the playoffs in his career and was MVP of his only Super Bowl (2009). Remember that he’s been durable to only miss six starts due to injury (five this year) as he’s played the fourth-most games (287 including playoffs) at the position. Remember all the dominant games at home in prime time when he looked unstoppable. Remember all the receivers he’s made look extremely efficient by being incredibly accurate each year. Remember that Brees has had one top 10 scoring defense and maybe two top 10 special teams units (2019 pending) in his whole career to help him out, and he’s played in one of the toughest divisions of his era.
So what is Brees missing on the resume when he applies for GOAT status? Oh, of course, not enough things out of his control have gone his way.
Part II: …Brees Should Be the Comeback King Too
While those numerous 7-9 seasons with New Orleans’ historically bad defense did him no favors, the reality is Brees has often been left disappointed by his teammates for 19 years. Even in his NFL debut with the Chargers in 2001, Brees came off the bench and helped erase a 19-0 deficit to give his team a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter. San Diego lost 25-20 after the defense allowed a go-ahead touchdown with 1:20 left. Brees evidently wasn’t an instant master of the two-minute drill, but he got there eventually.
If not for an unusual amount of letdowns by his teammates in the clutch, Brees would already own the records for fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD) instead of looking up to Manning and Brady again.
Most 4QC wins in NFL history (includes playoffs):
- Peyton Manning – 45
- Tom Brady – 44
- Drew Brees – 37
- Dan Marino – 36
- Johnny Unitas – 34
- John Elway – 34
- Ben Roethlisberger – 34
- Joe Montana – 31
- Eli Manning – 31
- Brett Favre – 30
Most GWD in NFL history (includes playoffs):
- Tom Brady – 57
- Peyton Manning – 56
- Drew Brees – 53
- Dan Marino – 51
- John Elway – 46
- Ben Roethlisberger – 46
- Brett Favre – 45
- Eli Manning – 42
- Johnny Unitas – 40
- Matt Ryan – 38
Third place is still really impressive for Brees, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Take Sunday for example when Brees gave the Saints a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds left after trailing 42-33 earlier in the quarter. That one doesn’t count because the defense allowed a game-winning field goal with no time left.
That game is what I refer to as a lost comeback — a game where a quarterback brought his team from behind in the fourth quarter to a lead, but still did not win the game.
Drew Brees has 19 lost comebacks, easily the most in NFL history. Manning and Brady only have seven each. Brett Favre played the most games at QB ever (326) and had nine lost comebacks. Philip Rivers has the most failed comeback attempts in NFL history (73), but only nine were lost comebacks. Ben Roethlisberger (nine), John Elway (eight), and Dan Marino (seven) didn’t crack double-digits either.
So who is close to Brees in lost comebacks? The names may surprise you until you remember how similar these flat-liners are at producing improbable results and hot streaks. Joe Flacco and Eli Manning each have 17 lost comebacks. Packers fans are used to defending Aaron Rodgers’ amount of lost comebacks, but he has 10 (just three since 2013).
Brees’ historic total doesn’t even include a 2016 game against Denver where he threw what should have been a go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:22 left, but the extra point was blocked and returned for two points in a 25-23 loss, the first such outcome of its kind in NFL history.
Obviously not every lost comeback means it was an earned victory for the quarterback. Taking a 1-point lead with 12:12 left and never scoring again isn’t decisive by any means. Even in Sunday’s game against the 49ers, one could argue it was a huge miss by Brees on the two-point conversion that would have given the Saints a 3-point lead and led to overtime. Then again, the defense had a fourth down to win the game before George Kittle made a monster play to set up the 49ers’ win. But if we gave the top trio their lost comebacks to go with their earned comeback wins, then the top three looks like this:
Most 4QC in NFL history (includes playoffs and lost comebacks):
- Drew Brees – 56
- Peyton Manning – 52
- Tom Brady – 51
Technically, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most wins. What about opportunities to do this? Brees has had worse defenses overall than Manning and Brady after all. Remember that a 4QC opportunity is having the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime, trailing by 1-8 points. The average NFL team wins these games around 30 percent of the time.
Career 4QC Opportunity Records
- Tom Brady: 44-41 (.518)
- Peyton Manning: 45-51 (.469)
- Drew Brees: 37-61 (.378)
So all three are above average, but Brees has the worst record with the most opportunities. Obviously there are a lot of other factors to consider here from time/timeouts left, chances per game, average deficit, field position, quality of opponent, etc. But for today let’s adjust those records by turning every lost comeback loss into a 4QC win:
Revised 4QC Opportunity Records with Lost Comebacks
- Tom Brady: 51-34 (.600)
- Drew Brees: 56-42 (.571)
- Peyton Manning: 52-44 (.542)
Brees gets a big enough boost here to move to about the midpoint between Brady and Manning. Let’s do something similar while looking at game-winning drive opportunities as well, which are games where the quarterback had the ball late with the score tied.
Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records
- Tom Brady: 58-43 (.574)
- Peyton Manning: 58-56 (.509)
- Drew Brees: 54-69 (.439)
Brees is the only one under .500, but we know he’s played better than that. A 1-9 start in the clutch just 18 games into Manning’s career drags him down, but he figured things out quickly.
To adjust these records we need to do more than switch the lost comebacks into wins from losses. We need to also add the games where a tie was broken and the QB’s team took the lead. That means a game like the 2018 NFC Championship Game when Brees led the Saints on a go-ahead FG drive with 1:41 left that infamously should have ended with no time left. But the officials missed one of the most blatant pass interference penalties ever on the Rams and the drive stalled earlier than it should have. The Rams were able to kick a game-tying FG to force overtime where they won 26-23. It’s just been that kind of luck for Brees in his career.
For the record, this is the count of games where the QB led a go-ahead score while tied and still lost: Brees (two), Manning (two), and Brady (one). Interestingly enough, all three had one in a playoff game that could have led to a Super Bowl-winning year (2006 Patriots, 2012 Broncos and 2018 Saints).
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Go-Ahead Drives
- Tom Brady: 66-35 (.653)
- Drew Brees: 75-48 (.610)
- Peyton Manning: 67-47 (.588)
Once again Brees jumps in the middle in winning percentage, but also is first with 75 clutch wins where he put his team in position with a scoring drive.
The final adjustment I would make to these records is to account for clutch field goals/extra points (tied or down 1-3 points, 4Q/OT). These three quarterbacks certainly have different levels of luck when it comes to that. Several of the biggest field goal outcomes in NFL history, from Adam Vinatieri’s snow kick to Billy Cundiff’s choke, have gone in Brady’s and New England’s favor. Meanwhile, Brees lost his first playoff game (and credit for a 10-point 4QC/GWD) against the 2004 Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard FG in overtime. Manning is the only QB in NFL history to lose two playoff games (2000 MIA, 2005 PIT) after a missed clutch FG by the presumably drunk Mike Vanderjagt.
These numbers haven’t changed from 2018:
Just once in his career (2012 ARI) has Brady lost a game after a clutch FG was missed. It’s happened to Brees 10 times, or more than Manning (six) and Brady combined once again.
Without double counting any games with the losses we already adjusted into wins, here are the final records for these QBs in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Drives and 100% FGs
- Drew Brees: 83-40 (.675) from 54-69 (.439)
- Tom Brady: 67-34 (.663) from 58-43 (.574)
- Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
So there we have it. In a fantasy world of perfect kickers and impenetrable defenses, Brees would have the most clutch wins ever and a better winning rate than Manning and Brady. We added a whopping 29 wins to his record compared to just nine for Brady and 12 for Manning. But the reality of those games has painted a much different legacy for these quarterbacks.
Part III/Conclusion: And the GOAT Is…
On pure individual merit, I still think Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time. No one played at a higher level as consistently or for as long as Manning did, and he proved his system worked for multiple teams and multiple head coaches. That’s why he won five MVPs, seven first-team All-Pros, and was deserving of eight each. Health and not playing into his forties is really the only area where the other two have a leg up on him.
With Brady, it’s like the old saying goes: eighty percent of success is showing up. His durability is much underrated as only one torn ACL in 2008 has kept him out of action. He’s kept himself available for the team with the biggest coaching edge and biggest divisional advantage in the NFL for two decades. He has more team help and a higher margin for error than the other top quarterbacks of his era. And we know when a big game comes down to a coin flip, the Patriots win more often than not. They don’t beat themselves and they make opponents pay dearly for their mistakes. His GOAT case is perhaps the only one in sports that is centered more on what other players around him have done than anything he’s done himself.
Brees’ situation is really the opposite of Brady’s. He’s had the least help from his defense and special teams, especially in clutch situations. He plays in the toughest division where two quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Matt Ryan) have won an MVP and been to a Super Bowl this decade. No quarterback in the history of football has seen more of his great drives, games and seasons go to waste than Brees.
It’s not like Brees needs all 29 of those losses I highlighted to turn into wins to gain more traction for being the GOAT. In fact, just five of those games could suffice in dramatically changing the narrative for this era.
2010 Falcons (Week 3): Here’s a sneaky big one that could have changed the course of the decade in the NFC. The Saints forced overtime at home against Atlanta, but Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime that would have won the game. Matt Ryan led the Falcons to a 27-24 win and Brees was denied another 4QC/GWD. This was big because the Saints finished 11-5, a wild card, and the Falcons were the No. 1 seed at 13-3. With a simple 29-yard field goal, both teams are 12-4 with the Saints getting the No. 1 seed thanks to a season sweep. That means there’s no Beastquake in Seattle with the 11-5 Saints traveling to the 7-9 Seahawks and losing 41-36. Brees gets a bye and homefield with the first game coming against the No. 6 seed Packers. Now I wouldn’t assume a Super Bowl run takes place, but it could have happened as the NFC lacked a juggernaut that year and the Saints already beat the Super Bowl-bound Steelers that season. Imagine how denying Aaron Rodgers his only ring while winning a second straight Super Bowl changes the narrative for Brees.
2011 49ers (NFC Divisional): In a classic 36-32 playoff shootout, Brees led the Saints back from a 17-0 deficit on the road to multiple fourth-quarter leads. He threw two go-ahead touchdown passes in the final five minutes alone on the way to 462 yards. Brees is still the only QB in NFL history to throw two go-ahead touchdown passes in a playoff game and lose. He lost after Alex Smith led an 88-yard touchdown drive with 9 seconds left, denying Brees a signature road win and a chance to host the Giants, a team the Saints ripped earlier that year, in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints also would have had a good shot at beating the Patriots, with a weaker defense and injured Rob Gronkowski, in the Super Bowl that year.
2017 Vikings (NFC Divisional): Here we go again. Brees led another comeback from 17-0 down on the road to give the Saints multiple fourth-quarter leads. His final drive (for a FG) put the Saints ahead 24-23 with just 25 seconds left. Even though the Vikings were 61 yards away from the end zone with 10 seconds left, Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs after Marcus Williams blew the tackle and Diggs scored the only walk-off touchdown in regulation in NFL playoff history. The Saints may have been favored to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. That one’s far from a lock, as is a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, who beat the Saints thoroughly in Week 2 of that season. But you never know what could have happened since he didn’t even get the chance he played well enough to deserve.
2018 Rams (NFC Championship Game): I’ve already gone over what happened here with the horrible no-call on defensive pass interference on the Rams. It’s the most blatant no-call in playoff history. With that, the Saints would have run down the clock to kick a short field goal and win the game. Once again, you couldn’t guarantee a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but it sure would have been a more entertaining game than the 13-3 snoozer the Rams gave us. Denying Brady his 6th sure would have been big for Brees too.
2019 49ers (Week 14): We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out, but this could be a big one if it costs New Orleans the No. 1 seed. We know the Saints are much better at home than on the road. Maybe we’ll get a rematch in January, but that Kittle play on fourth down was huge for this season.
As always, I chose five moments that had nothing to do with the quarterback himself. A 29-yard field goal missed in overtime. A defense that can’t defend 88 yards against Alex Smith in under 2:00 or 75 yards in 25 seconds against Case Keenum. A horrible no-call of pass interference. A game-deciding 4th-and-2 that turns into 53 yards for the opponent.
While it’s unlikely that the Saints would have turned all of these seasons into Super Bowl appearances and wins this decade, it certainly changes the narrative had the five plays gone for Brees’ team. Millions of people think Eli Manning will make the Hall of Fame just for going 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls. Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.
Brees is the epitome of it takes a great player to break a career record, but a great player alone doesn’t win a Super Bowl. Brees is essentially the game’s Hypothetical GOAT. He’ll have the passing records, but he won’t have all the Super Bowl accolades for reasons largely out of his control. History should care more about the path than just the outcome. If you look at the way the last two decades in the NFL have played out, Brees undoubtedly deserves more respect.