Perception is weird. Drew Brees has been long considered one of the NFL’s Tier 1 quarterbacks; after 11 years of exemplary service, Matt Ryan hasn’t risen above Tier 2. They’ve each been named first-team All-Pro. They’ve each taken a team to a Super Bowl. Brees’ team won; he was named the game’s MVP. Ryan’s team did not, and he wasn’t. (Fun fact: Ryan’s passer rating against the Patriots in 2017 was 144.1; Brees’ rating against the Colts in 2010 was 114.5.)
Both have been the best part of their NFC South teams for more than a decade. Both have had to work hard to override their team’s often-suspect defense, and sometimes that work has been in vain. In 2014, the Falcons were 6-10, the Saints, 7-9. The graph of these old enemies keeps fluctuating, and their paths seem to have again diverged. The Falcons were 7-9 last year, needing to win their final three games to manage that. The Saints went 13-3 and were denied a Super Bowl berth via the most egregious non-call in NFL history.
The Saints enter this season driven by a holy fury to right that wrong, and they’re among the teams viewed as Super Bowl favorites. The Falcons aren’t held in such high esteem. But there’s one easy way – OK, maybe not so easy – that last year’s flop could again surge to the top of the South: Matt Ryan could outplay Drew Brees.
I know, I know. That sounds like a reach. It’s not. Ryan threw for more yards and more touchdowns in 2018 than Brees, who finished second to Patrick Mahomes in the MVP voting. Brees led the league in passer rating (115.7); Ryan was fourth (108.1). Brees averaged 8.2 yards per pass; Ryan averaged 8.1. The difference was that Brees was sacked 35 fewer times than Ryan, a failing the Falcons sought to address by drafting offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary.
There’s another key number – age. Brees is 40, Ryan 34. The Brees of September through mid-November of 2018 was Peak Brees. He posted a passer rating of 111.9 or better in nine of the Saints’ first 11 games. (They won 10 of the 11.) These were his ratings over the final six games, the Division Round and the NFC Championship included – 71.6, 90.9, 69.1, 103.2, 103.1 and 88.4. The Saints lost two of the six and won three others by the skin of their teeth. Brees wasn’t the same. Ergo, they weren’t the same.
Did age begin to rear its gray head? Brees turned 40 five days before the NFC title tilt. Or was it just a blip at the end of what was, in the main, one of the great quarterback’s greatest seasons? In April, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ran the numbers and offered this semi-conclusion: “My most likely outcome for him (in 2019) is that he's about halfway between league average and the lofty heights of his 11-game start to 2018.”
Then Barnwell hedged: “With that being said, there's a chance Brees does drop to replacement level in 2019. Every quarterback in this age bracket has some chance of turning into a pumpkin in any given season without warning.”
Ryan has a ways to go before he hits 40. The two seasons after he won MVP – or, put another way, the two seasons since Kyle Shanahan left to coach the 49ers – weren’t his best, but they weren’t fall-from-the-cliff awful. He still has Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohammed Sanu and Austin Hooper. He got Calvin Ridley last year. He has the two rookie linemen now, and he also has Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. The Steve Sarkisian experiment didn’t work. Koetter was the OC here from 2011 through 2014, a time in which Ryan’s numbers ticked upward. The two are comfortable with one another.
Do the Falcons have as good a team, 1 through 53, as the Saints? Probably not. Pro Football Focus ranked the Saints’ roster the NFL’s third-best; the Falcons’ was rated 11th. But a hot quarterback is tide that lifts all boats. We saw that with Brees for most of last season. We saw it with Ryan in 2017.
The perceived gulf between Brees and Ryan has long been overstated. They’re both Hall of Famers. Difference is, one just turned 40, and the other isn’t yet 35. If the Brees of 2019 isn’t the Brees of the first 11 games of 2018, the Falcons will have the better quarterback. And the team with the better quarterback often winds up with the better record.
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