Is Drew Brees Finally Declining? Stats Paint Worrying Picture for Saints QB

The NFL's first ever game in Las Vegas is not an occasion Drew Brees will remember fondly. For the second consecutive week, the veteran quarterback struggled as the New Orleans Saints lost 34-24 to the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football and slipped to 1-1 for the season.

A week after he described himself in the win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as "awful", Brees finished 26-of-38 for 312 yards for one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 91.1. On the face of it, the figures should not be cause for concern. After all, only seven quarterbacks had more passing yards than Brees in Week 2 and his passer rating was higher than those of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Tom Brady, all of whom led their teams to a win this weekend.

However, a closer look to Brees' stats paints a far more worrying picture for the Saints. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the 41-year-old averages 4.82 air yards on his passes so far this season, which is both his lowest average through the first two weeks of the season since joining the Saints in 2006 and the lowest figure of any quarterback in the NFL at this stage of the season since Brett Favre in 2009.

Data from Pro Football Focus was even more damning. Only 33 percent of Brees' passing yards against the Raiders came through the air, his lowest single-game percentage in three years. Brees completed five of nine passes of 10 yards or longer and failed to connect with the only attempt of over 20 yards he attempted.

Brees' average depth of target was a paltry 5.3 yards and, more worryingly, 60 percent of his passing yards came after the catch—that is to say, they were made up by the receiver after securing possession before being tackled or going out of bounds.

"I don't think it's gonna be a real pleasant film to watch for some of our star players as well," said Saints head coach Sean Payton.

The Super Bowl XLIV MVP has been reluctant to throw the ball downfield over the last two seasons—data from Football Outsiders shows 57 percent of his 378 attempted passes last season were short, while 29 percent were mid-range and only 15 percent of his passes were 15 yards or longer—and still managed to post the two highest completion percentages in NFL history and the two highest passer ratings of his career.

Drew Brees GIFTS Las Vegas an easy INT 🎁

— PFF (@PFF) September 22, 2020

Brees' future was subject to much speculation during the offseason and not even a two-year, $50 million extension with the Saints he signed in March managed to completely silence the suggestion of an imminent retirement, particularly after the quarterback agreed a deal with NBC Sports to join the broadcaster as analyst once his career is over.

Coupled with his future in the broadcasting booth, Brees' performances in the first two weeks have drawn unwanted parallels with Peyton Manning's final season with the Denver Broncos, when the two-time Super Bowl winner's incredibly high standards declined swiftly.

Admittedly, two games is a very small sample size and Brees' task on Monday wasn't helped by Michael Thomas' absence, with the Saints star wideout and last season NFL's reception leader sidelined with a high ankle sprain.

After the defeat against the Raiders, Brees made it clear he had little time for individual statistics, suggesting team success took precedence over personal milestones.

"My job is to execute the offense, right? I think I've always evaluated myself on being a great decision-maker," he was quoted in The Athletic.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to throw the ball to the open guy, move the ball down the field, score points, help us win football games.

"So that's my job. My job is not to have the most air yards or throw the ball down the field the most or anything like that. My job is to help us win and put everybody around me in the best position to succeed. And that's all I'm focused on."

If Brees and the Saints continue to stutter, however, the veteran quarterback could face far harsher questions this season.

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints warms up prior to the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 21. Brees had a night to forget as the Saints lost 34-24. Christian Petersen/Getty