NEW ORLEANS – With the remaining NFC playoff field having taken shape and New Orleans holding the clearest edge at the most important position in the NFL, Saints defensive end Cam Jordan wasn’t hearing the comparison. He heard it, but he surely wasn’t embracing it.
Four quarterbacks are left in the NFC playoffs. The Saints tout Drew Brees, the lone Super Bowl victor in the field and one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. The Atlanta Falcons bring Matt Ryan to the table, hoping to erase last season’s devastating bridesmaid status in Super Bowl LI. The Minnesota Vikings wield Case Keenum, who started the season as the No. 3 quarterback. And the Philadelphia Eagles are putting prayers up for Carson Wentz’s backup, Nick Foles, whose most surprising stat this season is that he’s only 28 but gets spoken about in the NFL like he’s a mid-30s journeyman barely hanging on.
This is the field of quarterbacks in the NFC. And to the most talkative Saint, it’s not really a field at all. Indeed, the conference path into the Super Bowl appears to be slanting into the Saints’ favor. And they sense it.
“It’s Drew Orleans or none of them,” Jordan said of the remaining NFC quarterbacks. “… You come down to your conclusion and you let me know which one is better.”
Some will say such a conversation is oversimplified – that there is more to a Super Bowl than having a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. But looking at the past 10 Super Bowl winners reveals a field overwhelmingly defined by HOF talent. Alongside Brees: The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger and New York Giants’ Eli Manning. The only outliers in that future Hall of Fame fraternity are the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (who is off to a pretty good start), and the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco, who is the lone foil to the percentages suggesting that every Super Bowl winner has to field a top-shelf quarterback.
If history is instructive, Jordan’s confidence is well-placed. In this remaining NFC field, Brees is giving the Saints a defining reason to wonder, “Why not us?”
Particularly after dealing all night in a 31-26 victory against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, to the tune of 376 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. All against an opponent that stacked up and sold out to stop the run for much of the night, as if questioning whether Brees was still capable of winning when New Orleans was forced out of the balanced offense that carried much of a superb 2017 season.
“I’ve been telling you all year that you don’t sleep on Drew,” running back Mark Ingram said. “If you are going to stack the box, try to stop the run and take us out of the game, then he is going to hurt you. We have been telling you that he is the best quarterback in the league. He is still Drew Brees.”
In a league that seems to start and stop at Tom Brady when it comes to the “greatest quarterback” discussion, Brees’ standing is an uphill argument. He raised eyebrows Sunday, showing he can still carry an offense. He can still make it look Super Bowl-worthy when it’s squarely on his shoulders. So much so that the rest of the team around him looks capable of going on a little redemption tour against three of the five opponents that beat the Saints this season. Starting next week against the Minnesota Vikings; possibly extending to meet the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game (should Atlanta make it); and then, if the stars align, potentially meeting Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl – in what would be a dream quarterback matchup for the NFL, pitting two of the most iconic stars in league history against each other.
That would also cap one of the league’s most remarkable micro-rebuilds, after three consecutive 7-9 seasons that had New Orleans looking more like a franchise on the verge of a reboot than a postseason run. But as great as the soon-to-be 39-year-old Brees looks, the story of this Saints team remains the personnel revamp that has taken place since the hiring of assistant general manager Jeff Ireland in 2015. And you could see it all over the field against the Panthers.
On a night when the Saints held the Panthers to an early run of field goals that helped preserve the win, four of New Orleans’ five leading tacklers were draft picks taken since Ireland joined the team – safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, and defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Tyeler Davison. Not to mention a litany of other young players who have helped the Saints replenish a young core without gutting the roster – including wideout Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, defensive end Trey Hendrickson and linebacker Alex Anzalone (who landed on injured reserve this season but has a bright future).
In the theater of draft evaluation, the Saints’ 2017 draft class is the equivalent of sweeping the Oscars. It may end up being the best draft in the history of the organization. And while head coach Sean Payton deserves a large share of the credit, part of the precision retooling came with Ireland implementing a leaner draft process that cuts down the number of prospects the Saints target. Rather than the 400-plus boards of past years, Ireland helped construct a system where the Saints look at roughly half that total – somewhere in the neighborhood of 200. That has allowed New Orleans to do a deeper, more meaningful dive in evaluations. In turn, the better knowledge has helped eliminate mistakes while also finding talent that more specifically fits the Saints’ coaching staff and scheme.
It’s been such a revelation that one prominent NFC executive expressed surprise that Ireland hadn’t been a prominent name considered in the recent slew of general manager openings.
“Considering what they’re doing right now and the players they’ve built around [Brees], Jeff has arguably been one of the best [personnel men] over the last three seasons,” the executive said. “The further they go [in the postseason], the more obvious that’s going to be – and I think they have a chance to go far with this group.”
That remains to be seen, but the Saints look as capable in the NFC as anyone else. Particularly with the possibility still on the table that New Orleans could go all the way through the Super Bowl in domed stadiums.
As Cam Jordan might say, that’s playing right into the hands of Drew Orleans.
Maybe just like everything else in the NFC playoff slate.
Stop what you're doing and enjoy Drew Brees dancing with Mark Ingram in the Saints locker room.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) January 8, 2018