What was the reason for Drew Brees’ lack of deep passes last season?

The pass wasn’t particularly beautiful or memorable.

It got the job done.

A lot happened that day, so Drew Brees connecting with Ted Ginn Jr. down the Superdome’s right sideline during the 2018 NFC title game just a couple plays before the infamous no-call is an understandably forgettable moment. But the fact is, Brees reached back and threw the ball 40 yards through the air to put the Saints within the 15-yard line.

Not a perfect throw. Ginn had to turn around and make a play, but turning around also allowed him to stay between the safety and the ball, which ended up being a good thing. Here is what matters: The pass got there, and Brees was able to take advantage of a busted coverage.

There has been a lot of attention paid to Brees’ ability — or inability — to push the ball down the field. Plenty of people have aptly pointed out the issue exists. But how bad is the problem? Was there another cause? Why did it drop off so quickly?

First, consider what happened between that pass to Ginn and the end of the 2019 season:

Week 1: During the opener against Houston, Brees hit Ginn on a 44-yard completion on a pass that traveled 40 yards through the air. The pass was a little underthrown, but Brees couldn’t step into it because pressure was closing in. Given the circumstances, it seems unfair to grade him too harshly for an imperfect pass.

Week 2: Brees breaks his thumb and misses the next five games.

Weeks 8-17: Brees connects on 3-of-11 attempts on passes traveling 25 or more yards through the air. He only attempts two passes traveling 40 or more yards through the air during this stretch, not including one attempt during the playoff game against Minnesota that was intercepted.

One of those attempts against Carolina at home was brutal. The pass fell several yards behind both Ginn and the player defending him. On the road against Carolina, Brees floated a deep attempt that almost got picked off. The pass against Minnesota was a poor decision thrown into double coverage. All three attempts were bad.

Breaking it down, after the injury, Brees averaged 1.2 passes per game traveling 25 or more yards through the air.

For the sake of comparison, during the first 12 weeks of the 2018, Brees averaged 1.72 passes traveling 25 or more yards through the air.

Not a stark difference, but a big enough difference to make it notable. The other difference is that Brees hit on 10 of his 19 attempts for 337 yards in 2018. Three of those traveled 40 or more yards through the air.

All aspects of Brees’ performance visibly changed after a Thanksgiving game against Atlanta. But he was only 2-for-4 for 58 yards on deep passes during the final five games of the season. He had no passes over 40 yards until attempting three during the playoffs.

Opponents and coverages also play a part in this, but the sample sizes are large enough to notice a trend.

There are two possibilities.

The first one is that Brees is a 41-year-old quarterback who can no longer sling the ball down the field and wore out late last season and never really recovered. 

The other possibility is that late in the 2018 season, Brees suffered an injury against Atlanta that impacted his performance and got healthy enough to take some shots down the field during the playoffs following a first-round bye. Then, in 2019, his broken thumb impacted his ability and accuracy on deep throws.

The most likely answer is that it is a combination of both things.

Brees’ arm strength has been slowly evaporating for years. This is one of the things that led to Brandin Cooks growing frustrated with his role in the offense. Even if you don’t want to listen to Cooks, the Saints have admitted some deterioration through their play designs by having deep routes turn over the middle of the field for what is called a “giant” route.

The Panthers also showed what they thought of Brees’ arm during the 2017 playoffs by stacking the middle of the field and forcing him to throw outside. It backfired, but the approach spoke volumes.

But the rapid fall seems … rapid. Too rapid, which makes it hard to overlook the details that might have contributed to the fall off.

All worth pondering. As I said on Saints Talk, I think this situation is worth monitoring before reaching a conclusion. Brees doesn’t need to have a ton of arm behind his throws. He needs to be able to hit on throws like the one to Ginn to keep defenses honest.

If he can do that, the offense will open up just enough.

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