Drew Brees breaks all-time passing mark, and it’ll be a while before anyone catches him

October 10, 2018

From 1966 until Monday night, a span of more than 50 years, only five quarterbacks had held the honor of being the NFL’s all-time passing-yards leader.

But when New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees hit rookie WR Tre’Quan Smith on a 62-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of their game Monday against Washington, Brees became No. 6.

Brees surpassed the mark of 71,940 yards, set by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at the end of the 2015 season when Manning finished ahead of Brett Favre’s 71,838 yards. It summed up the night for the Saints, who clobbered Washington, 43-19.

On Monday Brees completed his first eight passes and finished 26-of-29 passing for 363 yards and three scores in an absolutely brilliant performance. The Saints called a late timeout to pull Brees for Teddy Bridgewater and give the Superdome fans one more chance to serenade their hero.

It was deafening.

Brees actually entered the game No. 3 all time in passing yards. He passed Favre with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Josh Hill in the second quarter to give the Saints a 13-6 lead. Brees is now one TD pass short of also joining the exclusive 500-touchdown club, which currently has only three members: Manning, Favre and Tom Brady, who joined it on Thursday.

The record-breaking pass was Smith’s first NFL touchdown reception. The rookie was born in 1997, when Brees had just finished his freshman year at Purdue — another sign of Brees’ talent and longevity. Considering that many felt Brees would never recover fully from shoulder reconstruction after his fourth season with the Chargers, before he joined the Saints, it makes the accomplishment even more spectacular.

Brees was mic’ed up for the game, and the special moment after Smith’s TD was as great as anyone could have hoped. Manning was not at the Superdome on Monday, but he took time to record (a very funny) congratulatory message for breaking the mark.

Last Thursday, with the record in sight, Brees tried to deflect much of the praise to his teammates — past and future.

“It says a lot about the teams I’ve been on, the coaches, the teammates, the players. Everyone has a hand in this, and I hope they know that,” Brees said.

When Brees entered the NFL in 2001, the NFL’s all-time passing-yards record holder was Dan Marino at 61,361. At the time, the number felt like Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs — a mark that it might take generations to even approach.

After all, the top spot Marino had overtaken from Fran Tarkenton in 1995 had stood up for more than 19 years. It was hard for some to imagine anyone ever passing Tarkenton’s 47,003 yards in what then looked like the NFL’s dead-ball era compared to modern passing.

Times change. And they continue to change in mind-blowing ways.

No one knew at the time Brees’ NFL career began that Brett Favre, who was a little more than halfway to Marino at 34,706 yards, would play until he was past the age of 41. Or that Peyton Manning, then entering his fourth season, would not only surpass Marino but also take over the top spot from Favre, who held the passing-yards mantle for nearly eight years.

“At the time I was just hoping to solidify the backup position, and eventually maybe one day become a starter,” Brees said last week. “So to be sitting here 18 years later in striking distance ... it’s just kind of mind-boggling.”

Eight years ago Brees was still more than 11,000 yards away from Manning as he approached his 37th birthday. Of course, for a man who has averaged more than 4,800 passing yards per season with the Saints, Brees was able to catch up fast.

The NFL’s titular passing king still somehow remains underrated. Hard to believe but true. Are there 10 better quarterbacks in the game’s history? Sure, comparing Tarkenton or Johnny Unitas to today’s passers is a fool’s errand. There’s no way to properly measure greatness across eras in a game that has changed so massively in recent generations.

The half-life of the old NFL, rooted in power football and ground-based attacks, started decaying with the innovation of the AFL team’s passing games, the merger with the NFL and the ascension of the Bill Walsh school of thought. As the league approaches its centennial celebration in a few years, we must be prepared — cyclical as football ever will be — that we might never go back to the way things were before that.

Brees might end up at 80,000 for all we know. Tom Brady (67,418) sits about one season’s worth of yards behind Brees right now — and still had more passing yards this season than Brees in one fewer game entering Monday — and is seven months older than the Saints QB.

Is Brady playing until he’s 45? Is Brees stopping before he’s 45? We shouldn’t doubt either one, really.

But beyond Brady, there are not a lot of obvious candidates to overtake the throne anytime soon. Does Aaron Rodgers, who is turning 35 soon, have a chance to double his career total of 40,074? Not likely.

You might put a small wager on Matthew Stafford, who is second behind Brees among active players, one day hitting 80K. After all, Stafford hasn’t yet turned 31 years old and is likely to be almost halfway there by the end of this season. But we’re talking nine, maybe 10 more great seasons from him to do it.

Matt Ryan is 33 and has a puncher’s chance. He’s at 43,397 yards now, has averaged 288.7 passing yards over the past seven years and is at 320.2 yards per game this season. For measuring-stick purposes, Brees was at 45,919 yards by the end of his age-33 season, so Ryan certainly is on pace for one day threatening the mark — if he plays at least seven and more likely eight more seasons.

But right now it’s Brees’ world. For such a great player who maybe hasn’t received enough national attention — wild as that sounds — having this record helps make up for that.

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