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John DeShazier: Drew Brees continues to pile up exceptional numbers

Saints quarterback is on the verge of his fourth 5,000-yard season

Funny thing about Drew Brees and productivity: Even when conditions aren't ideal, and he endures more hits and possibly absorbs more punishment this season than any other year of his career, the numbers just keep stacking up same as always, right on schedule.

The hits keep on coming, but so does Brees.

Entering the New Orleans Saints' regular-season finale against Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, with the Saints (10-5) looking to enter the playoffs on a winning note and finish the regular season 8-0 at home, Brees stands 219 passing yards short of 5,000. Entering this season, he was the only quarterback in NFL history to have three 5,000-yard seasons (2008, '11 and '12).

His 35 touchdowns are the third-most he's had in a season (behind 46 in 2011 and 43 last year), and his completion percentage (68.2) is a mark he only has topped once (a league-record 71.2 percent in 2011).

Only three times in a season where he has started at least 15 games has he finished with fewer than the 12 interceptions he currently has thrown – seven in 2004, 11 in 2006 and in '09. And his quarterback rating (101.8) is a mark he has bested just three times (2004, ''09 and '11).

What makes the numbers stand out even more is the fact that he never has been sacked more in a season, 36 times entering Sunday. The next closest are 27 with San Diego in 2005 and 26 with the Saints last season.

"I would say more so this year than others, I've tried to maybe hang on (to the ball) and have the opportunity at the big play, and avoid the ball coming out late, throwing into coverage or whatever it might be," said Brees, who was listed on Wednesday's injury report as being limited in practice. "I've certainly tried to make an emphasis of maximizing the opportunities for big plays and yet, avoiding the bad plays."

And sometimes, avoiding the bad play – a turnover – has meant holding the ball and taking a sack. [internal-link-placeholder-0]

"I think – I don't want to use the word 'spoiled' – but that's something that has been very exceptional," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "You don't have the numbers that he has put up, even this season, without (the offensive line) playing well. You're still statistically looking at a group that has done very well per pass attempt."

Still, the line has endured its share of unfavorable attention given the fact that Brees has been sacked 2.4 times per game.

In his 13-year career, he'd never been sacked at least four times in a game more than twice in a season until this year. This year, he's gone down at least four times in five games, including a career-high tying six on Sunday against Carolina.

"That's unfair," Brees said of the criticism of his offensive line. "Throw in all the factors – me hanging in there trying to get some balls down the field, taking more sacks than I have, that's on me. Not throwing the ball away.

"But then, there have been those times where you hang on to it and you do get the big play, so it's give and take. I think our guys up front have played great. I think they've done a great job of allowing us to be balanced."

And Brees' production hasn't suffered, compared to his standards or those of quarterbacks this season that have been sacked a similar number of times.

Of the 13 quarterbacks who have been sacked more than Brees, none is closer than 13 points to his passer rating, 560 yards to his passing total or eight touchdown passes of his sum.

Just five of them have fewer interceptions than him and only one – Tom Brady, with 10 interceptions in 604 passing attempts – approaches Brees' total of 12 in 619. None of the other four, whose interception totals range from seven to nine, have attempted more than 508 passes.

In short, the Saints are getting elite-level play from Brees even as he's attempting more passes, and being sacked more times, than his counterparts.

"He's very durable," Payton said. "He's still someone that's very decisive with the football. I think he has a great understanding of where he wants to go by coverage and a lot of times, he's able to avoid pressures.

"His numbers are a little bit changed with regards to hits this season maybe than the past two or three seasons, and yet as a team, that still puts us in the top 10 per attempts (in sacks allowed). He's been very consistent and he trains and works exceptionally hard at keeping himself in great shape."

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