Drew Brees’ Defense Hurt His NFL Career More in the Last Decade Than Any Other QB/Defense Duo

In the eyes of many NFL fans, having a good team rests entirely on the good quarterback. The position is highly important, but there’s much more to team building than having an elite talent under center.

Drew Brees excelled as the New Orleans Saints’ QB for a decade and a half. But his greatness was often held back by other underwhelming facets of the team. A recent feature in The Athletic used advanced stats to show just how much Brees was let down by the Saints’ defense throughout his prime. 

The Quarterback Betrayal Index explores how certain QBs were undermined by their franchises

Mike Sando of The Athletic created the Quarterback Betrayal Index, which uses TruMedia’s expected points added (EPA) model to show the disparity between lackluster defenses and special teams and fully-functioning offenses. The ranking is determined by subtracting the defense/special teams ranking from the offensive equivalent. So the bigger the gap between each side of the ball, the more a quarterback was “betrayed.” 

The rankings are made of 54 QBs who started at least 30 combined regular season and playoff games over the past decade. The players have a record of 722-1541-9 (.320) in games where their non-offensive units had a negative combined EPA. 

A list this extensive is inevitably filled with QBs all over the talent spectrum. But the top 10 comprises quarterbacks who were or are considered top-tier players. It shows the complexities of creating a team with compatible talent on both sides of the ball. Getting the best out of quarterbacks requires a team to prioritize offensive linemen and passing threats over cornerbacks and edge rushers.

It’s a sensible outlook given the value a good QB can add to a team. But it can leave the rest of the team without the resources to bring in good players to fill out the rest of the roster. And plenty of situations occur where even having a Hall of Famer throwing the ball is not enough to win games. 

Quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints stands on the sidelines during a 2016 game
Saints quarterback Drew Brees in 2016 | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Drew Brees’ greatness was offset by consistently poor defenses

Brees finished first on the list with a -49 differential between the offenses he led (second highest EPA among quarterbacks in the rankings) and defenses (51st on the list) that struggled to generate any stops for years. When the EPA of the defense and special teams was negative, he was 37-49. 

The most frustrating stretch was 2014-16. Brees was terrific, averaging 5,010 yards and 34 touchdowns a season while completing nearly 70% of passes. The Saints’ offense ranked first in EPA in this era. However, New Orleans went 7-9 each season and missed the playoffs each year. The combined EPA of the defense and special teams was the worst in the NFL. 

The defense did come around before the end of Brees’ career. In his final year, the Saints had the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL. Pro Bowlers Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore led the charge. This equaled out the offensive rating and helped make up for Brees’ diminishing arm strength. 

But for most of his time in New Orleans, Brees fought uphill for a franchise that struggled to find a legal way to stop the opposition. It’s fair to wonder how the Saints’ defensive problems would’ve played out if not for Bountygate.

The initial boost came from Gregg Williams after he became the defensive coordinator. But the aftermath cost him his job, and other coaches were suspended. The team became even more dependent on Brees to stay afloat. He was more than good enough for the job. The situation may have helped the Saints develop an over-reliance they never recovered from. 

Other signal callers also had to overcome unreliable defenses 

Justin Herbert comes in second with a “betrayal index” rating of -44 and an 8-17 record when the rest of the team had a negative EPA. These numbers help to explain why Herbert has yet to throw a pass in the postseason despite clearly being one of the best young QBs in the NFL.

The Chargers have the sixth-best offensive EPA since he was drafted. But the defense and special teams rank 30th over that same period. It’s fitting that he and Brees rank No. 2 and No. 1 respectively on the betrayal index. Joe Lombardi, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, used to be Brees’ position coach from 2009-13. 

Tony Romo and Matt Ryan are tied for third with a -41 rating. Romo (16-18) has a much better record than Ryan (37-75) in games with a negative defense/special teams EPA. However, his reputation throughout most of his career was that of a serial choker lacking playoff success due to his personal failings. In reality, he was the reason the Dallas Cowboys were at all relevant in the late 2000s. 

Ryan’s status as a great quarterback was similarly shaky. But the Falcons never ranked higher than 24th in combined defensive and special-teams EPA in any of Ryan’s final nine seasons with Atlanta. The offense ranked in the top 10 five times during that stretch. For all the attention and money quarterbacks receive, it takes much more than that to create a title-winning team. 

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