Drew Brees: The NFL's Passing King
by Scott Kacsmar
Drew Brees needs 201 passing yards on Monday night to replace Peyton Manning (71,940 yards) as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader. At a time when journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick is setting records for 400-yard passing games (and still getting benched), this may not come off as the most impressive record a quarterback can set, but it has always been a prestigious one.
Barring the unthinkable, the NFL's 99th season will end with Brees as the all-time passing king. With the way he has started this 2018 season, Brees may be able to push the record to a place that allows him to reign longer than anyone ever has. That would be a fascinating feat for a quarterback who has received, at best, the fourth-most recognition among his peers.
Let's review Brees' path to history, as well as which active players could challenge this record in the future.
A Brief History of the Passing Kings
Brees will be the 10th player since stat-keeping began in 1932 to hold the passing yardage record, and everyone on that list is or will be in the Hall of Fame. The following table shows those first nine quarterbacks, the season they set in which they set the record, the yards they finished that season with, and the final season through which they held the record.
|NFL Passing Yardage Record Holders Since 1932|
|Quarterback||Year Set||Yards||Held Thru||Yards|
Arnie Herber was the top passer of the 1930s before Sammy Baugh came along to set a new standard as the first quarterback with 10,000 and then 20,000 passing yards. Baugh retired after 1952, but it wasn't until 1959 when Bobby Layne surpassed him. Otto Graham is not featured on this list since AAFC totals are not included with official NFL totals. That's also why Y.A. Tittle did not take the official NFL record until 1964, his final season. Johnny Unitas was the next revolutionary quarterback, and he broke the record in 1966, the season of the first Super Bowl. Despite retiring just after the NFL moved to 16-game seasons and relaxed passing rules, Fran Tarkenton broke the record in 1976 and held it longer than anybody until the 1995, season when Dan Marino took over. Marino was surpassed by ironman Brett Favre in 2007, and Manning had just enough left to take the record in 2015 before retiring.
Beyond having remarkable consistency as a passer, durability plays a huge role in setting this record. Tarkenton only missed eight games in his whole career, and five of those came at age 37 in 1977. Favre's streak of starting 297 consecutive regular-season games is well known, but Marino also did a very good job of avoiding serious injuries outside of the time he tore his Achilles in 1993 and missed 11 games. Before the neck surgeries, Manning started the first 227 games of his career in Indianapolis, which is still easily the record for quarterbacks to begin a career.
Despite never having a fancy start streak, Brees' durability is among the best in history. He only appeared in one game as a rookie in 2001 and was benched for five games in 2003 with San Diego. He sat out in Week 17 twice for playoff rest in 2004 and 2009. That means Brees has only missed one start due to injury in his career, and that was a 2015 game against Carolina. If we can speak of "good fortune" as it relates to injuries, Brees had some in 2005 when his serious shoulder injury occurred in Week 17 of a non-playoff season. Brees tore his labrum and suffered rotator cuff damage, leading to surgery which likely would have ended his season had it happened at any earlier point.
That injury led to some teams, Miami most notably, passing on Brees in 2006. That just paved the way for Brees to land in New Orleans with head coach Sean Payton, a perfect pairing that has led to this historic production in the passing game.
Drew Brees: Worthy of the Throne
At 39 years old, Brees' legacy is not complete. However, it is likely to be a confusing one for future historians when they look back on this great era of quarterbacks. Brees has yet to win an MVP award. He likely won't be on either All-Decade team list. He may only play in one Super Bowl.
Always in the shadow of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, Brees was supposed to reach their level after his Super Bowl MVP performance to end the 2009 season. It never happened because Aaron Rodgers stepped up and stole his thunder in 2010. Those three quarterbacks have consistently received more praise than Brees, but he's likely going to be the one with all the passing records in the end. He also has a higher postseason passing DVOA than the other three if that's the sort of thing you're into.
Given the data, it actually wouldn't be that hard to make a case for Brees as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, but for now we are just talking about yards. By that standard, Brees is most worthy of the throne.
- Brees ranks first in NFL history in passing yards per game (283.6).
- Brees has the most 300-yard passing games (118) and the most 400-yard passing games (19) in NFL history, including playoffs.
- Brees has the most consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons (12) in NFL history.
- Brees has more 5,000-yard passing seasons (five) than all other quarterbacks in NFL history combined (four).
- Brees' 5,476 passing yards in 2011 set a single-season record before Peyton Manning surpassed him in 2013 with 5,477 yards.
- Brees is the only quarterback to ever throw for more than 250 yards in all 16 games of a season (2011).
- Brees set a single-season record for the most 300-yard passing games (13) in 2011.
- Including playoffs, Brees has the two longest streaks of 300-yard passing games in NFL history: 11 games in 2011-12 and nine games in 2012-13.
- Including playoffs, Brees has the longest streak in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards: 21 games in 2010-12.
- Brees has led the NFL in passing yards seven times, two times more than any other quarterback.
As the records show, Brees is as prolific as it gets when it comes to passing yardage. If there's an argument against him, it's probably going to be that he pads the numbers at times to make up for how lousy his defense played. No sane person is going to put him on par with being The King of Garbage Time, a la Blake Bortles before the Jaguars had a defense. But it is true that Brees is no stranger to turning the two-score loss with 250 yards and a touchdown into a one-score loss with 330 yards and two touchdown passes after a final, lower pressure drive. In fact, Brees has 11 touchdown passes in the final two minutes of a game when trailing by 14-plus points while no other quarterback since 2001 has more than six such scores.
When it comes to trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter of a loss, Brees leads all players since 2001 with 6,917 passing yards. Eli Manning (5,223) and Carson Palmer (4,622) are the only other players above 4,000 yards. Brees' 6,917 yards in that situation are only 264 fewer than Manning (2,986 since 2001), Rodgers (2,192), and Brady (2,003) combined.
So I get that argument, but I don't think it's a good one since it's only a few thousand more yards. Besides, it's not like Brees asked to be saddled with defenses that are annually disappointing. From 2006 to 2017, Brees played with three defenses that ranked in the top 16 in DVOA and six defenses that ranked 30th or worse. The Saints are 29th on defense through Week 4 in 2018. The argument would work better if we were talking about how Matthew Stafford gets his yards, but we'll get to him later.
Next, let's take a quick look at when Brees surpassed Manning's pace.
Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning
Brees is going to break the record in his 254th regular-season game, or 12 fewer than the 266 Manning played. However, Brees has already attempted 75 more passes than Manning did in his career. For the next graph, I tracked the gap in passing yards between Manning and Brees for each regular-season game of their careers.
The only reason Manning resurfaces towards the end is because of the extra 12 games he has played. Brees is ahead by 2,866 yards thru 253 games. Manning led every step of the way until the 149th game of their careers. By game 160, Brees opened up a lead of more than 1,000 yards for the first time. In Manning's career, games 149 to 160 were his final 12 games in 2007, and he only surpassed 300 yards twice in that span. He also left the Week 17 game early that year. Meanwhile, games 149 to 160 were a prolific period for Brees in the 2011-12 seasons. He averaged a whopping 353.9 passing yards during that stretch.
The Other Challengers
We'll conclude with a look at which active quarterbacks could become the new passing king after Brees. The table below shows the age of those quarterbacks this season, how many yards they are behind Brees, and the number of games and seasons they would need to match Brees if they averaged a lofty total of 300 yards per game.
Before reading the table, note that the last column makes several bold assumptions since we are dealing with a lot of unknowns here. We don't know exactly when Brees (or any of these players) will retire, or if the league will be playing 18-game seasons by 2022. So, for starters, unless Manning has been hanging out with Tonya Harding in retirement, we're going to assume that Brees keeps playing and producing in 2018. In fact, let's just assume that all of these quarterbacks throw for the same amount of yards for the rest of 2018 so that Brees has his same gaps over them going into 2019. It's not a very good assumption, but it sure makes the math easier. We're also going to assume that Brees retires after this season, which is another bad assumption since there has been no indication of that. Finally, this is assuming no missed games for any of these quarterbacks, so good luck with that. Also, an average of 300 yards per game is not easy to do over 16 games. It has been done 21 times and Brees (seven) has a third of those seasons. Maybe the game is moving towards that, but we'll see.
All of those reasons are why it's going to be even tougher for some of these players to surpass Brees than this table already shows, so keep that in mind. Breaking a career record is meant to be hard.
|The Future NFL Passing King Is…(Still in High School?)|
|Quarterback||Age||Yards||Behind Brees||Games Needed at a 300-yard average|
|Tom Brady||41||67,077||4,663||16 (play thru his age-42 season in 2019)|
|Eli Manning||37||52,737||19,003||64 (play thru his age-41 season in 2022)|
|Ben Roethlisberger||36||52,479||19,261||65 (play thru Game 1 of his age-41 season in 2023)|
|Philip Rivers||37||51,504||20,236||68 (play thru Game 4 of his age-42 season in 2023)|
|Matt Ryan||33||43,112||28,628||96 (play thru his age-39 season in 2024)|
|Aaron Rodgers||35||39,632||32,108||108 (play thru Game 12 of his age-42 season in 2025)|
|Matthew Stafford||30||35,951||35,789||120 (play thru Game 8 of his age-38 season in 2026)|
|Andrew Luck||29||20,204||51,536||172 (play thru Game 12 of his age-40 season in 2029)|
|Jameis Winston||24||11,781||59,959||200 (play thru Game 8 of his age-37 season in 2031)|
|Baker Mayfield||23||496||71,244||238 (play thru Game 14 of his age-38 season in 2033)|
Tom Brady is 4,663 yards behind Brees, but he's two years older, which is a huge problem when neither is ready to retire. If Brady could play until 45 like he has talked about, then he should pass Brees, but that just looks so unlikely. No one has ever attempted 300 passes after their age-41 season. Beyond his own battle with Father Time, Brady's problem is that Brees isn't slowing down. In fact, Brees has widened his gap on Brady by 377 yards since Week 1 this season.
We can quickly eliminate Aaron Rodgers and the three class of 2004 quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger) from breaking this record. Rodgers never had much of a shot after sitting behind Brett Favre for three years and missing the equivalent of a full season to two broken collarbones. Rivers and Eli do not even seem interested in playing until they're 41 or 42. Roethlisberger might actually have the best shot of the four, but his long injury history makes that doubtful. Under this projection, he wouldn't be allowed to miss a start through his age-40 season, and that's just not happening.
Injury is also a reason to put Andrew Luck's chances at about 0 percent. He was the most prolific quarterback in passing yards in each of his first three seasons, but a lacerated kidney in 2015 and missing the entire 2017 season for his shoulder ruined that pace. Even if Luck threw for 5,000 yards in each season of his thirties, he'd still be behind Brees' pace.
|Most Passing Yards Thru Year X|
Matt Ryan might have as good of a shot as anyone here. He slipped past Manning's mark for the most passing yards through Year 9 and Year 10. He could continue wiping Manning off the list due to the seven games Manning left early for playoff rest from 2004 to 2009. It's that close, but Manning clearly fell off in favor of Brees when he had the neck surgeries and missed all of 2011. Ryan has only missed two games to injury in his career, back in 2009. He has been a Week 1 starter since he was a 23-year-old rookie. It's not inconceivable to see him have six more highly productive seasons after this one to finish out his thirties.
Rookie Baker Mayfield is really just listed to show the monumental task any young player faces in bringing down Brees. If he kept pace with Brees for the rest of 2018, then averaged 300 yards per game over his next 238 games (almost 15 seasons), then he might have the record as long as Brees retires following this season. That's all. Mayfield is actually at a disadvantage since he's a 23-year-old rookie, though Brees didn't start a game until he was 23. Sam Darnold actually has the age advantage since he's 21, but I picked Mayfield just because I think he'll be the better pro.
Age is a factor though, and that's why Jameis Winston is on the list. Winston was a 21-year-old rookie who set the record for the most passing yards through his age-21, age-22, and age-23 seasons. He has a good shot to continue that pace through his age-24 season.
|Most Passing Yards Thru Age X|
The problem with Winston is, can he be trusted to last? He missed three games to injury last year and just wrapped up a three-game suspension to start this season. He has regained his starting job over Ryan Fitzpatrick, and this clearly is a talented offense in which he could put up big numbers. But can he do it for over a decade? I would not trust him right now.
If we were doing odds on this, then Matthew Stafford would probably be the favorite. He has the most passing yards before turning 30 in NFL history. Stafford's 35,951 yards through 129 games is another record that puts him ahead of where Ryan (33,727), Marino (33,721), Manning (33,465) and Brees (32,675) were. It feels reasonable for him to continue producing through his age-38 season, and he'd be even further ahead if he had not infamously miss 19 games to injury in his first two seasons. He hasn't missed a start since.
The concern with Stafford is if he ever gets tired of the losing in Detroit and retires early. Maybe he hits a rough patch and ends up being replaced by a young gem like what happened to Drew Bledsoe in Dallas when Tony Romo took over. Maybe he goes to a more talented team in his early 30s and secures a spot in Canton like Tarkenton did in his second Minnesota stint. Maybe he retires this offseason. Laugh if you want, but Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson didn't return to Detroit (or the NFL) for their age-31 seasons.
Did you notice these lists have been dominated by quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall? Manning, Winston, Luck, Bledsoe, and Stafford were all No. 1 overall picks. Ryan went third, but was the first quarterback drafted in 2008. Brees, likely due to his size, was the first pick of the second round in 2001 (Michael Vick went No. 1 after a trade involving Brees' Chargers). He was a prolific passer in college too. When Brees left Purdue after 2000, his 1,678 pass attempts ranked second in NCAA history (he's still 15th). That arm has been getting some serious work since the '90s.
Ten years ago, Dan Marino's 1984 season was still the only 5,000-yard passing season on record. Brees was four games into his 2008 season, when he would become the second to hit that milestone. Maybe in 2028, the 500-yard passing game will have replaced the 400-yard passing game, and the 6,000-yard season will make the 5,000-yard season look antiquated. Remember, throwing for 3,000 yards used to be a big deal. Now if your quarterback can't do it in 16 games, he must be terrible.
The game does change, but greatness still tends to look the same. If Brees can hang on to play at 41 like Favre and Brady did, then he has a great shot to be the NFL's first 80,000-yard passer. History tells us he won't be the last, but don't be surprised if Brees holds this record for 20 years.