Drew Brees doesn’t have long.
He is days away from his 39th birthday in a business where, even for quarterbacks, you’re NFL-old in your mid-30s.
He left New Orleans Monday and Tuesday to attend the funeral for his grandfather, Ray Akers, a World War II veteran and decades-long Texas high school football coach. It’s been a time of reflection for the future Hall-of-Famer, whose Saints host the Carolina Panthers in a wild-card playoff game Sunday.
How has he evolved over 17 NFL seasons?
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“Just the ability to manage a work week; understanding what is really important,” Brees said Wednesday at the Saints’ training facility. “I spend a lot more time taking care of my body than I did 10 years ago.”
What’s important? Winning, of course. The Saints gave Brees his platform in 2006, signing him as a free agent after the franchise that drafted him, the San Diego Chargers, turned that team over to rookie quarterback Philip Rivers.
Brees justified that faith with a Super Bowl victory following the 2009 season. He’s iconic in New Orleans now, and for more than just throwing the football. He helped rally the city and region back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Things haven’t been so exciting or prolific of late: This is the Saints’ first playoff appearance since 2014 and their first home playoff game since 2012. This team has been made over to such a degree that few other than Brees remember a postseason at the Superdome.
The good news for Brees? The Saints no longer need him to be perfect to beat the Panthers. A defense that has been terrible for most of the previous three seasons was solid in 2017. The running back combination of Mark Ingram and spectacular rookie Alvin Kamara means passing early and often is not the only formula for advancing.
Brees’ 536 passing attempts this season are his fewest since 2009; about 140 fewer throws than he attempted last season – the third in a row when the Saints went 7-9.
The defense and running backs change what the Saints expect of Brees. They don’t change what he expects of himself.
“It sure is nice. Does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mindset going into the game? No,” Brees said.
“It was probably my fewest attempts in a long time. So, if you take away 5, 7, 10 attempts (and add them to) the run game, then you’re doing something right in the run game. And it probably means you’re playing good defense, where you don’t have to throw the ball and make big chunks.
“At the end of the day, what does that do for me? It means I don’t have to take so many chances.”
Brees sure isn’t getting soft, as he heads toward 40.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. left the Panthers after last season to sign with the Saints. He, Brees and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel are the only Saints with 10 or more seasons of NFL experience.
Ginn knew Brees only from afar before this year. What he saw up-close was a guy who channels Michael Jordan: Wired to win at anything, no matter how mundane.
“Anything around this building he’s going to try to be the best person at it,” said Ginn, second among Saints in receiving yards at 787. “That competitive spirit he has helps him day-in and day-out, helps him compete with all these young guys.
“Ping-pong, throwing competitions, it could be anything – flipping a quarter! Some things you wouldn’t think he could play, he can play.”
To Brees, competition and preparation are synonymous. He left for his grandfather’s funeral loaded down with study materials and video for the matchup with the Panthers.
Brees said he wouldn’t need to up his preparation for his first playoff game in four years because it’s always at the max. That was his message to a young team, with many on the roster playoff-game virgins.
“You tell them it’s all about the preparation during the week. I think they got a taste of what that feels like, from the atmosphere at that Atlanta game” that ultimately was the difference in the Saints winning the division, Brees said.
“We’ve got a great group of veterans and leaders. That will continue to be communicated throughout the week.”