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What the retirement of Drew Brees does to the competitive balance of the NFC

New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As Rams fans well know, the Saints came extremely close to reaching the Super Bowl three seasons ago. That’s not surprising, given that New Orleans won at least 11 games in eight of Drew Brees’s final 12 seasons. And they only posted four 7-9 seasons because a) they had the worst defense in the NFL those years and b) Brees did everything in his power to keep the Saints from going 1-15 when that happened.

On Sunday, Drew Brees announced his retirement.

The retirement of Brees comes after 15 straight seasons of leading New Orleans in passing yards and seven times leading the entire NFL in that category. His 80,358 passing yards are the most all-time and will only be surpassed if Tom Brady lives through about Week 6 of next season. The next closest active players who only might have a shot at it are Matt Ryan at 55,767 yards and Aaron Rodgers at 51,245 yards.

In fact, Matthew Stafford is now the fifth-leading active career passer and he only just turned 33.

For now, it appears that the Saints will turn to backup Jameis Winston, with reports being that they’ll attempt to re-sign him on a similar deal as what Cam Newton just received with the New England Patriots: a one-year prove-it contract that could pay him a modest amount that I don’t really care to speculate about. Because to me it’s not about what the next quarterback of the Saints costs, it’s about who the next quarterback of the Saints is capable of doing.

And Winston hasn’t proven capable of much yet.

Despite being the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, Winston proved barely good enough to receive the fifth-year option from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and in his last full season he threw 30 interceptions. If not for drops, he might have thrown forty.

Maybe it is true what they say about Winston sometimes: it’s like we’re playing checkers and he’s playing forty chess.

While I do acknowledge that the Saints went 8-1 without Brees over the last two seasons, there’s a big difference between maintaining the status quo for a few games and playing an entire season without a starting quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter for New Orleans in 2019, but appears to be trending backs toward a backup role after one season in Carolina. Taysom Hill went 3-1 as the starter in 2020 — because the team didn’t want to turn to Winston — but he’s only proven that he shouldn’t do more than he’s currently doing.

Even at “$140 million”.

The only reason I even mention any of this on a Rams blog is that the Saints have gone 11-5, 13-3, 13-3, and 12-4 in the NFC over the last four seasons. New Orleans has been one of the most consistently dangerous NFL teams during Brees’s tenure and that is now over. That’s huge. It wouldn’t just be disrespectful to say that the Saints could do just as well with Winston and Hill as they did with Brees, it would be illogical. I’m not writing off Winston, but he’ll need a history-defining turnaround.

Now pair that with the unstable situation at quarterback for so many other teams in the conference and you’ll start to appreciate how valuable the Matthew Stafford addition could really be:

  • The Bears and Football Team seem to have zero adequate starters at quarterback right now. The Saints may go with a quarterback who hasn’t started since 2019. The Panthers haven’t been shy about the fact that they’ll probably go in a different direction than Teddy Bridgewater, so they too are without a “starter”.
  • The Eagles appear to be starting Jalen Hurts or a rookie.
  • The Lions are going to start Jared Goff.
  • The Giants look to be sticking with Daniel Jones.
  • The 49ers are posturing like they’ll go with Jimmy Garoppolo, but that could change.

That leaves the best quarterbacks in the NFC as:

  • 44-year-old Tom Brady.
  • Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Kyler Murray.
  • Stafford.

The only quarterbacks in the NFC who have proven capable of leading their teams to the playoffs in most years are Brady, Rodgers, and Wilson. Stafford is not among them, but he’s considerably younger than two of those players and with Brees’s retirement he’s moving up the list.