The old Nike slogan used to go “you don’t win silver, you lose gold” – the IOC were big fans of that one.
But if second is nowhere, then what’s third?
That’s a question Drew Brees might have pondered occasionally through his 18 season pitching the pigskin around the NFL.
If you took the sportswear manufacturer’s message on-board in many sports – those trailing in the wake of Messi and Ronaldo’s otherworldly abilities over the last decade come to mind – you might be discouraged in your pursuit of excellence.
That Brees hasn’t been in the face of the relentless dedication of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is one thing that sets him apart as an all-time great NFL quarterback. As the leader of the New Orleans Saints for over a decade now, Brees’ career is a testament to his mental strength while playing in an era of immortals.
Standing as the Emmerdale to Eastenders and Corrie’s Brady and Manning – then being leapfrogged by Aaron Rodgers (don’t think I’d get away with Hollyoaks here trying to stretch the analogy) as Peyton declined – Brees has contributed hugely to the greatest era of quarterbacking in the history of the sport.
Looking at the record books, his work stands for itself.
This week he added the all-time yards total to the career completions record collected in late September at the Falcons. He already had the most 400 yard games, 300 yard games, completions in a season, consecutive games throwing 300 yards – twice, in fact, having done it nine games in a row on two separate occasions – as well as the longest streak in NFL history of games with a passing touchdown (just 54 games!).
Basically he holds more records than the prison service filing system – he could probably beat the world keepy-uppy record if he tried his hand at that.
But stats don’t tell the whole story.
The game has evolved to the benefit of passers in the last two decades – the Lions’ Matt Stafford could smash many of the records again if he plays for another ten years, but is no one’s idea of an all-time great QB.
Yet the playing-field has been level for Brees’ contemporaries, so why isn’t he lauded like Manning, Brady, and latterly Rodgers?
Partly it’s to do with his team.
TB12 has his five Super Bowl rings, eight appearances in the big game, the undefeated regular season of 2007 and a general air of indestructibility.
Manning only (only!) has the two rings, and one was collected almost in spite of his play than because of it, but his command of the position – as well as the offensive coordinator role he often assumed behind the Colts line – marked him out from virtually his first snap in the league as a great, while Rodgers’ miraculous feats make his exalted status self-explanatory.
The Saints QB has the 2009 Super Bowl win on his resume, and became a figure head for the city as part of a team around which a devastated community could rally following Hurricane Katrina, but it’s fair to say that, until last season, the Saints had lost their halo as one of the elite sides in the league.
Breesus was working offensive miracles and collecting so many records because there wasn’t a hope in hell his defence could stop opponents.
And while there were plenty of times the black-and-gold outran their opponents, it’s not a sound strategy for collecting titles.
Several recent seasons have been written off despite his extraordinary play. Before 2017, the Saints missed the postseason in four of five seasons, going 7-9 in each of those lost campaigns.
But also there were doubts about Brees early in his career – essentially, at 6ft 1, he’s shorter than the Platonic ideal of the quarterback. His crouched stature behind the line hasn’t impeded his play in the league, but presumptions take a very long time to die.
Drafted by the Chargers in 2001, he replaced another dimunutive passer in Doug Flutie, but many took their skepticism about his physical capacity to survive in the league to be confirmed when he was allowed to leave San Diego in ’05, with the Dolphins medical staff rejecting a deal to bring him to South Beach due to what they saw as a very risky shoulder condition.
The Saints picked up him up and he’s missed two games in thirteen seasons since. Miami have cycled through failed quarterback after quarterback.
His capacity for manufacturing yardage and touchdowns with whatever weapons he’s been given remains undiminished throughout that time – Ted Ginn, Willie Snead and Ben Watson are just three names that would not have the careers they do without Brees. You could even throw coach Sean Payton in there while you’re at it. Despite this, his consistently excellent output has never landed him a league MVP award.
That could change this year as the record tumble and Brees possibly marches towards a second Super Bowl win.
The Saints missed the big show last season thanks to a freak play in the Divisional round, and for sure the Rams look to be all-in for a title run in 2018, but with the Hall of Fame first-balloter under centre, the Saints can put it up to the very best still – and this Saint shows no signs of coming down to earth just yet.