Drew Brees vs. the Eagles Was the Greatest Passing Performance in the Past Three Years

It’s no secret that Drew Brees is having an incredible season. In fact, Bovada has recently pegged the 39 year old quarterback as the favorite to win the NFL’s MVP award. However, it seems that we’ve become numb to just how great of a season Drew Brees has had.

Last Sunday, New Orleans’ 48-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles looked like just another dominating showing by the surging Saints. Brees’ 363 passing yards and 4 touchdowns certainly appear impressive, but it is nothing we haven’t seen before. A closer look at the numbers show that his performance was far more incredible than people realize.

Passing Into Tight Windows

NFL’s Next Gen Stats defines Aggressiveness as the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. AGG is shown as a % of attempts into tight windows over all passing attempts.

Against Philadelphia, Drew Brees had an AGG of 40.0%. This means 40% of his attempts were into tight windows. That’s a lot. In fact, only six times over the past three years (which is as far back as the NFL has tracked these numbers) has a QB had an AGG that high.

NameYearAGG%ATTsCOMP%YDsTDsINTsRATING
Nathan Peterman201746.71540.0500049.3
Dak Prescott201844.42763.025520118.6
Cam Newton201642.13860.52611178.9
Paxton Lynch201641.72458.31701094.1
Dak Prescott201640.02075.021230148.3
Drew Brees201840.03073.336340153.2

No player threw it into tight windows as much as Drew Brees while still putting up his gaudy numbers. His combination of passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating dominates the competition. Even though Brees has the second most attempts on this list, his yards per attempt (Y/A) still leads the pack despite 12 of his 30 attempts being thrown into tight coverage.

It should be noted that Aggressiveness is a stat that simply provides context. It can suggest strong defensive play by the opposition, but a high Aggressiveness percentage could also be the result of poor decision making. For instance, Nathan Peterman threw it into tight windows on 7 of his 15 attempts in a home game against the New England Patriots in 2017. Maybe the Pats’ 30th ranked passing defense stepped up for a big game. However, it is far more likely that Peterman was simply forcing bad passes, given his history of mediocrity.

It is possible that this was also the case with Drew Brees’ performance against the Eagles. A look at his career Aggressiveness ratings makes this improbable. In fact, Brees’ Aggressiveness is quite low this season, even with the game against the Eagles accounted for.

Name2016 AGG%2017 AGG%2018 AGG%
Drew Brees17.516.616.2

The reason Brees threw into tight windows on 12 of his 30 passes was not that he was making poor decisions. He did it because the Eagles defense chose to force the former Super Bowl MVP to pass it to Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Dan Arnold, and Austin Carr, who are not elite route runners like Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara. It clearly didn’t matter.

Completion (Im)probability

Next Gen Stats defines completion probability as the probability of a pass completion, based on numerous factors such as receiver separation from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field, the separation the passer had at time of throw from the nearest pass rusher, and more.

Using this completion probability for each pass, Next Gen Stats determines a passer’s Expected Completion Percentage (xCOMP) for the full game. By subtracting this value from their actual completion percentage, the Completion Percentage Above Expectation (+/-) is calculated. A positive +/- means that that the passer completed more passes than they were expected to. A negative +/- means that the passer failed to meet expectations.

Drew Brees is leading the league in Completion Percentage Above Expectation (+/-) with a 10.0. This is also on pace to be the highest mark since the stat began to be tracked in 2016. Brees is expected to complete just 66.4% of his passes, but he is converting on a record-breaking 76.4% of his attempts.

For reference, Tom Brady has a higher expected completion percentage (67.7%) than Brees, but Brady is only completing 65.2% of his passes. That’s a +/- of -2.5.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, Drew Brees’ Expected Completion Percentage was an extremely low 52.8% over 30 attempts. As we know, Brees actually completed 73.3% of his passes. That’s good for a +/- of 20.5. A performance with a +/- over 20 with a minimum of 30 attempts is not very common; it has only been done five times in the past three years.

NameYearAggressiveness PercentageAttemptsPasser RatingCompletion PercentageExpected Completion PercentageCompletion Percentage Above Expectation
Case Keenum201637.532126.784.458.326.1
Sam Bradford201718.832143.084.461.423.0
Carson Wentz201639.433102.075.852.822.9
Andy Dalton201629.031130.074.253.620.5
Drew Brees201840.030153.273.352.820.5

Nobody has the combination of a high AGG% and a high rating as Drew Brees did on Sunday. Bradford has a high rating but an average AGG%. Wentz has a high AGG% but an average rating. Brees, meanwhile, has the highest AGG% on this list and the highest rating.

Conclusion

This performance was legendary. It is not sustainable by any quarterback because of the incredibly low margin for error. It didn’t get the attention it deserved because it was in a meaningless regular season game against a decimated Eagles secondary. I believe that they played better than the score shows, but there’s only so much you can do against a showing like this.

The emergence of Tre’Quan Smith is important for the Saints because players other than Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara will have to step up in the passing game. The fact that Brees has thrown touchdowns to 13 different receivers, tied for the NFL record with Matt Ryan in 2016, bodes well for the future. If Drew Brees and the Saints offense plays like it did against the Philadelphia Eagles, they won’t lose a game.

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