Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards with his final pass on Monday night's win against the Falcons. Ho-hum, you say: Passing records fall every season. Except that Marino's standard has held for 27 years, and only one other quarterback has ever surpassed 5,000 yards: None other than Brees, who threw for 5,069 yards in 2008.
Brees' pursuit of Marino's milestone has gotten the "oh, by the way" treatment from some outlets, while a few analysts cared just enough to give Bress the Roger Maris brush-off. "Brees' record will be severely watered down. So much so, that it almost deserves an asterisk," wrote Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com, alluding to today's liberal passing rules and strategies.
When not cruising past Marino, Unitas, and Montana, Brees is being a solid citizen about his contract situation. He becomes a free agent in March, but negotiations on a new deal have been tabled until the offseason. Saints president Mickey Loomis has praised Brees for not letting the slow/nonexistent negotiations become a distraction, but Loomis has not exactly sped things along, either. Apparently, things have become so severely watered down 32-year-old all-time record holders just grow on trees.
Granted, Brees is getting some props: He is often mentioned as this year's "runner-up MVP," and the Saints are quietly 12-3, in the playoffs, and in good position to wrap up the second seed in the NFC. But Brees deserves to be seen as more than a runner-up. He deserves a heck of a lot better than the asterisk treatment. Brees is a future Hall of Famer, and he should be acknowledged as one of the best quarterbacks, not just of this generation, but of any generation.
In good company
Yes, Brees is a Hall of Famer. He's not a Hall of Famer if he wins another Super Bowl, or if he has three more good years, or if he breaks the right combination of records. He is a Hall of Famer even if he announces before kickoff Monday that he is giving up football for tiddlywinks. Brees is not "on his way." He is there.
Brees is about to be named to his sixth Pro Bowl and has led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Every eligible quarterback in history with six Pro Bowls and a ring has made the Hall of Fame. In fact, the only quarterback in history with six Pro Bowl selections who is not in the Hall of Fame is John Hadl, the Chargers legend who earned much of his all-star notice in the wild-and-woolly days of the early AFL. Brees' record blows away top Hall of Fame argument starters such as Ken Stabler (four Pro Bowls, one ring) and Ken Anderson (four Pro Bowls, zero rings). Brees fits much more comfortably among second-tier Hall members such as Dan Fouts (six Pro Bowls, zero rings) and Bobby Layne (five Pro Bowls, two rings), well above the Joe Namath-George Blanda class of quarterbacks who made the cut for other contributions. You can argue that multiple Pro Bowl appearances were harder for old-time quarterbacks to achieve, because careers were shorter, but Brees is only 32, and we are giving him zero credit for what he might accomplish in the next decade.
And despite our "watered-down" times, Brees' totals will stick -- other than Brady, other quarterbacks in Brees' age group (Tony Romo, Eli Manning, and the like) are thousands of yards and many touchdowns behind.
Brees lacks an MVP award, but he has a shelf full of everything else: the Bert Bell Award, Offensive Player of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which acknowledges community service as well as on-field success. This is not the rsum of a borderline Hall of Fame candidate; it is overwhelming evidence of greatness, a slam dunk that is only going to rattle backboards even harder after a few more seasons like the past five.
And as for that "runner-up MVP" talk, those of us who crowned Aaron Rodgers in October (and I was one of them) had better take a closer look. Brees leads the league in attempts, completions, yards and completion percentage. He is second to Rodgers in passer rating, but the gap has closed to 120.1 versus 109.1. Brees has led four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks, Rodgers has led one and zero. Brees' December completion percentage is 76.4, Rodgers' is 55.9. Rodgers is having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, and Brees is gaining on him. Maybe it's the "runner-up" label that deserves an asterisk.
The third man
Brees is a champion, an All Pro, a record breaker, and a peach of a person. So why do we take him for granted?
First, there's the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady factor. Brees has spent his whole career as a third wheel behind two other all-time greats. There is nothing wrong with being a third wheel. Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, Sonny Jurgensen and other Hall of Famers were third wheels. Brees is probably the greatest third wheel in history.
The stat rejection usually goes hand-in-hand with traditionalism. In the early 1980s, columnists had kittens when Marino and Fouts started shattering records set by Namath and Jurgensen in the days when men were men. A few decades later, Marino had it hard and Brees has it easy. Records are typically set under favorable conditions; we have a habit of overemphasizing the current conditions and forgetting the old.
Finally, Brees is a victim of his own consistency. "Brees remains good" isn't exactly an attention-grabbing headline. If his career had ups and downs, like Eli Manning's or Romo's, it would make him easier to talk about. Peyton Manning's injury and the (highly contrived) Andrew Luck storyline keep him in the headlines even when he is on the sideline. Brady's jet-setter lifestyle allows him to generate headlines by getting a haircut or buying an estate. All Brees does is do charitable work, raise his family, and sleep through some cold medicine ads. Oh, and break a decades-old record.
So take a moment on Monday to appreciate Brees, an unassuming all-time great whom we will be able to enjoy for years to come. His excellence is not about Sean Payton, or Marques Colston, or the dome, or the pass-heavy times, any more than Marino or Montana were defined by their coaches, teammates, and eras. His excellence is about him, and the closest thing he deserves to an asterisk is a gold star.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.