FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The debate about who is the NFL's best quarterback has just gotten spicier.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre ended the past decade atop the list. Drew Brees now belongs in the mix.
Brees wasn't a lock in my Fab Five prior to Super Bowl XLIV. He was a great player statistically the past four seasons in New Orleans. But unlike the other four signal-callers, Brees hadn't won an NFL championship. I considered Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo - three other ring-less quarterbacks who elevated their play in 2009 - on roughly the same plane as Brees.
That opinion changed after New Orleans' 31-17 victory over the Manning-led Indianapolis Colts at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday.
Brees was a no-brainer as the game's Most Valuable Player. He systematically picked apart what was a surging Colts defense. Brees completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. His completion percentage of .821 would be even gaudier sans a clock-killing spike and Marques Colston drop.
"You never see that happen to us," said Colts strong safety Melvin Bullitt, whose team forced only one incompletion on 17 second-half Brees throws. "I don't know what it was. A lot of them were dump-off passes. We had them covered deep and (Brees) would hit Reggie Bush out of the backfield. He would get four or five yards on third down. Next thing you know, they've got a first down."
Brees has enjoyed far more impressive games numbers-wise. The same can be said of his overall 2009 campaign. The previous year, Brees came one completion short of breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record. Brees, though, didn't receive a single regular-season MVP vote as the Saints finished 8-8.
Brees was snubbed again this season, receiving 7½ of a possible 50 votes as Manning ran away with the award for a second consecutive year. But both Brees and his team were better because of an improved running game that helped New Orleans lead the league in scoring and total yardage.
Referencing his personal contribution, Brees proudly used the words that make less spectacular quarterbacks wince - game manager. He was smart with the football, throwing only 11 interceptions in 514 regular-season pass attempts while setting an NFL completion-percentage record at 70.6. Brees also enjoyed a turnover-free performance against Indianapolis.
"I always try to improve every year and I feel like I have," a groggy Brees said Monday morning at his Super Bowl MVP news conference. "The statistics might not show that or the wins and losses necessarily. But it's just the maturation process. As you gain experience, that's the only way you get better. Constantly focus on what you can do to help your team and all the things it takes to play the quarterback position."
Those items include leadership and composure under pressure - both of which Brees has displayed on and off the field. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Brees wasn't just the Super Bowl MVP but a "most valuable person" because of his charity efforts.
Goodell's description of the post-Hurricane Katrina relationship between the Saints and the New Orleans area as "magical" also applies to the bond forged by Brees and head coach Sean Payton. During the 2006 offseason, Payton took a gamble about as risky as calling an onsides kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Brees had suffered such a serious shoulder injury the previous season in San Diego that the quarterback-starved Miami Dolphins wouldn't offer him a free-agent contract. The Saints took the plunge with a six-year, $60 million deal.
Payton was rewarded with a player who could run his multifaceted offense to perfection. For the 10th time this season (including the playoffs), Brees hit eight different targets during Super Bowl XLIV.
"I feel like it's ESP, we communicate so well together," Brees said. "I have so much trust and faith in him. He has the same confidence in me to the point that when I'm on the field I feel like I know the play that's going to be called before it is."
The future ranking of NFL quarterbacks isn't so easy to predict. Manning had a chance for the greatest season ever completed by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback but sealed a lesser fate with a fourth-quarter interception that Saints cornerback Tracy Porter returned for a touchdown. While Brady may rebound when two years removed from a serious knee injury, this season showed that Tom might never be as terrific with New England as in 2007. Roethlisberger has led Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl titles but the Steelers also have missed the playoffs twice in the past four years. And no matter what the Super Bowl Hyundai commercial implied, not even Favre knows whether he will retire or return to Minnesota for a 20th NFL season.
Brees deferred Monday when asked how winning a Super Bowl affects his standing among the NFL's elite, saying he would "like to look back on that years from now when I'm done playing." Having turned 31 last month, Brees won't be finished for some time. He may even get better before all is said and done.
No wonder Payton already has broached the possibility of a Super Bowl repeat with his team.
"When you get a quarterback like Drew Brees in the prime of his career, (one Super Bowl) is not enough," said Payton, his reflection gleaming in the Lombardi Trophy he held aloft during Monday's interview session. "Last night was great, yet there's still something encouraging you to separate yourself more."
The Manning-Brady-Favre-Roethlisberger pack should take notice. They have company.