Is Drew Brees the best quarterback of his generation?

We tweeted about the topic last night, after the New Orleans Saints bested the Oakland Raiders, 28-20, in the second week of preseason action for each team.


Brees was razor-sharp, as usual, in the exhibition win. He completed 14 of 18 (77.8%) for 202 yards, 11.2 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT and a 131.9 passer rating and exited the game with the Saints sporting a 23-0 lead.

The conventional wisdom is that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the 1 and 1A of contemporary quarterbacks, with the debate over which one is best to carry on long after each has retired.

But Saints quarterback Drew Brees belongs in the discussion.

He may or may not be a better quarterback than either Brady or Manning. But to ignore his incredible credentials at this point is certainly a disservice: call it 1, 1A and 1B, in some kind of order.

Much like Brady and Manning, Brees has consistently put up spectacular numbers.

But here's the big difference: Brees, far more than either the other two, has also consistently suffered with the yoke of bad defenses hanging around him.

Most of those defenses were bad. But none of those defenses were worse than the unit Brees was paired with in 2012.

The Saints last year fielded the first 7,000-yard defense in the history of football, surrendering 7,042 yards. They were statistical light years worse than the 31st-ranked Giants (6,134 yards). The 2012 Saints also surrendered 454 points, second worst in franchise history, behind the 1-15 Saints of 1980.

Brees must be used to the burden by now.

In his 11 years as a starting quarterback (2002-05 with Chargers; 2006-2012 with Saints), he’s played with a top 10 defense in either scoring or total defense just once: the 2010 Saints ranked No. 7 in scoring D and No. 4 in total D.

Every other unit he’s been paired with has been fairly porous. Most have down-right sucked Bourbon Street gutter water.

Even the Super Bowl champ 2009 Saints ranked No. 20 in scoring defense and No. 25 in total defense – one of the worst defensive units that’s ever won a championship (worth noting that it did rank No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating, a statistical skill which ultimately sealed its title dreams).

Brady and Manning have consistently enjoyed the luxury of playing with better defenses.

Brady, for example, has been a starting quarterback also for 11 seasons (2001-2007 and 2009-2012 with Patriots). He’s played with a top 10 scoring defense eight times, including the top-ranked defense in 2003 and the second-ranked defense in 2004 and 2006.

Manning, meanwhile, has been a starting quarterback for 14 seasons (1998-2010 with Colts; 2012 with Broncos). He’s played with a top 10 scoring defense six times, more than most people realize, including the top-ranked defense in 2007 and the second-ranked defense in 2005.

Here’s the average rank of each quarterback’s defenses during their respective years as starters.

QBScoring DTotal D

Brady has consistently played with the best scoring units. Manning has consistently played with the best units in terms of total defense (yards allowed).

As an aside, the vast gap between the scoring defenses Brady has played with and their rank in total defense is a testament to the fact that New England coach Bill Belichick’s teams are masters of the “bend but don’t break” defense. Belichick's Patriots consistently average in the bottom half of the league in total defense, but consistently average in the top 10 of the league where it matters most, in scoring defense.

Brees has consistently played with the most porous defenses by any measure. Oh, and one other thing: last year he played an entire season not only without a defense, but, in an NFL first, without a head coach.

Critics say that Brees has a huge flaw in his game, that he commits too many turnovers. He did lead the NFL in INTs in 2012 with 19. But his career INT rate (2.683%) is almost exactly the same as Manning’s career INT rate (2.682%). Brady is well ahead both in this category (2.06%).

Meanwhile, Brees statistical production in almost every other area is truly phenomenal, and in many cases unprecedented, especially in recent years. He’s thrown 89 TD passes over the last two seasons. In fact, he’s the first QB in history with 40+ TD passes in consecutive seasons.

He single-handedly owns three of the six 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, including the No. 1 and No. 3 spots all time: 5,476 yards in 2011, easily the most in one season, and 5,177 yards in 2012.

Perhaps most impressively, Brees has put up pinball-sized passing totals with unprecedented accuracy. Brees, in fact, owns the two most accurate seasons in NFL history, completing 71.23 percent of his passes in 2011 and 70.62 percent in 2009. His career mark of 65.6 percent is third best in history.

Only four other quarterbacks have topped 70 percent completions in a single season, and none attempted 500 passes. Brees attempted more than 600 in each of his record-setting seasons.

Brees will certainly end his career as an all-time leader in almost every major passing indicator.

One wonders what his trophy case might look like if only he enjoyed the luxury of consistently serviceable defenses, rather than the porous units consistently hung around his neck like an iron anchor.

None of which necessarily makes Brees better than Brady or Manning. But he necessarily belongs in the discussion.