Drew Brees became the Falcons’ No. 1 enemy - but a nice one

For more than a decade, Drew Brees made the rivalry between the Falcons and Saints something to watch. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)
For more than a decade, Drew Brees made the rivalry between the Falcons and Saints something to watch. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Long before he’d relocated to New Orleans, Drew Brees was linked with Atlanta. He was the quarterback San Diego chose in Round 2 after trading the pick that allowed the Falcons to take Michael Vick No. 1 overall in 2001. The Chargers did OK in that draft. With the Falcons’ first-round pick, they snagged LaDanian Tomlinson; he’s in the Hall of Fame. Brees will be soon, though not for anything he did with San Diego.

The Falcons saw Brees once as a Charger. That came on Oct. 17, 2004. San Diego led 17-7 after three quarters — Tomlinson having run for a touchdown, Brees throwing for one. Then Vick took over. (I recall writing, “This was akin to an NBA team throwing the ball to its best player with five seconds left on the shot clock and saying, ‘Do something.’ “) The Falcons gained 177 yards in the fourth period. Vick ran for 32 of them; he completed passes for 130. A field goal brought the Chargers within 21-20 with 6:04 remaining. They didn’t get the ball again. Vick threw for two first downs and ran for the clincher.

When next the Falcons faced this quarterback, he was a newly minted Saint. The Chargers had done nothing special under Brees, and they’d acquired Philip Rivers — in the famous trade for No. 1 pick Eli Manning — in the 2004 draft. Brees fought off the Rivers challenge for two seasons, but he hurt his shoulder late in 2005 and required surgery. He became a free agent. The Dolphins, then under new coach Nick Saban, were considered the leaders for his services. They balked over his shoulder, signing Daunte Culpepper instead.

Brees’ first start against the Saints’ ancient enemy came in the first game in the Superdome post-Katrina. Steve Gleason blocked a punt in the game’s second minute. (A statue — titled “The Rebirth” — honoring the moment stands outside the stadium off Poydras Street, though the Falcons declined to allow their logo to be used.) The Saints won 23-3.

Brees would work 27 more games as a Saint versus the Falcons. New Orleans won 18 times. Twenty-three of those starts came against a team quarterbacked by Matt Ryan. The Saints won 14 of the 23. As it stands, Brees’ last appearance against the Falcons came on Thanksgiving night 2019. His team won 26-18 to eliminate the Falcons, with December still to go, from the playoffs.

That wasn’t a vintage Brees night — he completed 18 of 30 passes for 183 yards — and the game ended with the Falcons, having recovered a second consecutive Younghoe Koo onside kick, scrambling to tie. Cameron Jordan sacked Ryan on fourth down to seal the deal, and that was no shock, either. Jordan has sacked Ryan 21 times. That’s an NFL record for one defender dumping one quarterback. The 23 Brees-Ryan meetings? Also an all-time high.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to his family and fans after the 30-20 divisional round playoff football loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in New Orleans. It is expected Brees, 42, will retire. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to his family and fans after the 30-20 divisional round playoff football loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in New Orleans. It is expected Brees, 42, will retire. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

We mention this because, in the wake of the Saints’ latest postseason flop, Brees is expected to announce his retirement. He just turned 42, and it showed against Tampa Bay on Sunday. He completed 19 of 34 passes for … 134 yards? Yes, 134 yards. He threw three interceptions. His passer rating was 38.1, the worst of his 18 playoff games. His longest completion was for 16 yards.

The cold truth is that Sean Payton, who’s quite the schemer, has been scheming around his quarterback’s diminishing skills for a while. Note that the 2020 Falcons went 0-2 against Taysom Hill, starting because Brees suffered 11 broken ribs and one punctured lung. Note also that, on the one deep ball the Saints completed against the Buccaneers, its thrower was Jameis Winston off a flea-flicker.

The Saints have lost three of their past four playoff games; the three losses saw Brees average but 197 passing yards. He threw an interception in overtime in the no-call NFC championship game versus the Rams. He managed 208 yards last January against a Minnesota team led by Kirk Cousins. On Sunday, Brees was made to look old by Tom Brady, technically a year and a half older.

We pause to emphasize This is NOT a Falcon-watcher’s end-zone dance over what’s apt to be Brees’ last bow. He’s a great player. He helped elevate the Falcons-Saints series to a higher plane. He led New Orleans to an improbable Super Bowl victory against Peyton Manning’s Colts. (The Falcons and Ryan almost won a Super Bowl, if memory serves.) He has, from start to apparent finish, been as classy an opponent as the local team has ever faced.

It’s easy to hate Brady. (Even my wife does.) As a player, it has been impossible to hate Brees, though familiarity is supposed to breed contempt. Joe Montana spent most of his career in the Falcons’ division, starting against them 22 times. Brees worked against them 29 times. We came to know him well. Nineteen of those 29 times, we knew him too well.

Assuming he leaves, the Falcons’ hottest rivalry will have lost its leading nemesis, although nemeses are supposed to be mean and nasty. Drew Brees wasn’t that. He was the saintly Saint.

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