Brees may lack height but has other weapons
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Drew Brees is short. That’s the first thing you notice, because pretty much everyone else in his profession, NFL quarterback, is not. The New Orleans Saints list him at 6 feet even.
“He’s 6 foot with his cleats on,’’ said former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, now the team’s radio analyst. “If he’s barefoot, I’m telling you, he’s not 6 feet tall.’’
Every Super Bowl starting quarterback for the past 25 years has stood at least 6 feet 1 inch tall. When Brees crouches behind center tonight at Sun Life Stadium and takes his first snap of Super Bowl XLIV, that streak will end.
Brees has smashed into dust the notion that towering height is a prerequisite for an elite quarterback. The only player who blocked him from winning the NFL’s MVP this season is Peyton Manning, his prototypical, 6-5 counterpart. Brees can contend with Manning because he packs every desired quarterbacking attribute into 72 inches.
“It’s kind of been a survival mechanism for me,’’ Brees said. “When you don’t have one trait, which in my case might be height, then you have to lean on the other things that you feel you have.’’
Brees tonight will become the shortest Super Bowl quar terback since Joe Theismann in 1985. Only three other quarterbacks who were 6 foot - Billy Kilmer, Fran Tarkenton, and Len Dawson - have started in the Super Bowl.
Brees makes the tape measure irrelevant for a gaggle of reasons. The stack of superlatives used to describe him - masterful, accurate, charismatic, competitive - is taller than he is. He has made the height issue obsolete.
“His height is not even discussed by our organization or in our meeting rooms,’’ offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “It’s not a factor.’’
As Brees rose from a 190-pound high school senior to Super Bowl signal caller, it seemed at times height was the only factor. He won a state title at Westlake High in Austin, Texas, in perhaps the country’s most competitive region and never lost as a starter. Yet only Kentucky and Purdue recruited him. At Purdue, Brees broke every significant Big Ten passing record. Yet he was not drafted until the second round. Brees passed for more than 3,500 yards with the Chargers in 2005. Yet, Brees said, Saints owner Tom Benson “believed in me when no one else did’’ during Brees’s 2006 free agency.
“There’s not anybody who plays in the NFL right now who at some point in their life, they weren’t told that they couldn’t do this,’’ Brees said. “For me, it seemed like I always had that every step of the way.’’
The height hurdle may have actually been what saved Brees’s career when it arrived at its most perilous point. In the last game of the 2005 season, Brees dove for a fumble and tore the labrum in his right shoulder. The injury scared off much of the league, and only the Dolphins and Saints seriously pursued him.
The Dolphins decided the injury was too risky. It was precisely Brees’s height, the thing that had become a source of adversity for so long, that convinced the Saints he could come back.
“He’d been told a number of times in his life, ‘Hey, you can’t do this,’ ’’ Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. “And yet, every time, he did it. That resonates with you, especially if you’re coming off a serious injury and people have some doubts about you. We didn’t have any doubt he was going to be hardest-working guy in the training room.
“It’s hard to describe. But it’s the way he carries himself, the way he communicates, every little nuance and thing says, ‘Wow, we can follow this guy. Our team will follow this guy.’ ’’
Brees’s grip on the team and on the city has grown into a force that borders on mysticism. Saints players arrive at the team complex in the morning, and Brees is already inside, glued to a film screen. In practice, the Saints run team sprints to the goal line. Brees runs to the back of the end zone, an extra 10 yards.
“That probably encompasses the way he approaches the game,’’ Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said.
On a USO trip last offseason, Brees visited Marines at Guantanamo Bay and one morning participated in PT drills. Their call-and-response chants inspired Brees, so he borrowed one of them and changed the words to make it specific to the Saints. Half an hour before each game, it is Brees whom the Saints gather around. Brees yells, the Saints answer, and the team whips into a fist-pumping, hollering fervor.
“Have you ever seen another quarterback do that?’’ Hebert said.
Intangible attributes, the fallback explanation for any successful short athlete, tell only so much about Brees. In Week 7 against the Dolphins, Brees squirted into the end zone on a sneak and hopped to his feet. Brees bolted to the uprights, jumped, and spiked the football over the crossbar, which hangs 10 feet above the field, as if dunking a basketball. That week, his teammates teased Brees that he needed a boost from lineman Jahri Evans to elevate so high.
He didn’t. At any height, Brees is an exceptional athlete. When he was 12 years old, Brees beat Andy Roddick, who was 9, in three tennis matches. (“That’s true,’’ Brees said. “Three out of four.’’) According to Golf Digest, Brees is a 3 handicap. When the Saints went bowling on a team function, Brees was the team’s best bowler. When the Saints played paintball on a team function, Brees was the best paintball player.
“Sometimes what is maybe mislabeled is his athleticism,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a rare athlete. When you look at his foot agility, his release, his accuracy, and the fact that he has hands as big as mitts, he’s got a skill set that is perfect for the position. So on top of the hard work, and on top of all the things that you guys have read and written about - a lot which is true - he’s an amazing athlete.’’
In offseason workouts, Brees focuses on his core and leg strength. Brees uses his midsection and legs to generate velocity on his throws, which allows him to throw from any position or on the run. The dexterity and agility allows him to find spaces to thread the ball between behemoth linemen and to his receivers.
Still, in the eyes and notebooks of evaluators for so long, Brees’s height obscured his athletic traits. His ascent to the league’s elite may alter opinions on the importance of height in a quarterback. But then, the reliance on measurable attributes may be ingrained.
“The stronger you are, the higher they draft you,’’ said 49ers legend Joe Montana, who lasted until the third round largely because he is 6-2. “They lose sight of, can you make the throws and can you play the position? You might look like steak but taste like chicken. But still, you’re going to get drafted high because that’s the way they test.’’
“It’s hard to evaluate quarterbacks,’’ Brees said. “So much about it is here and here.’’
While he spoke, sitting on a riser surrounded by cameras and microphones, Brees pointed to his head and then touched his heart, smiling as if he has always known something the rest of them never will.
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.