By Hannah Martin
As long as you are green, you will continue to grow, but soon as you are ripe, you will soon be rotten.
In his 19th NFL season, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is still green.
"As soon as you think you know it all, you are done," he said. "I am still green. I still got things to learn."
Brees' list of accolades seem to go on for a mile. It is hard to think of a feat he hasn't accomplished.
Ten years after he brought New Orleans its first Super Bowl victory, he isn't slowing down.
"I feel good," he said. "Nothing has really changed for me. I may have taken a little more time at the end of last season just to get away from all that. But besides that, when it was time to get back to work I had surrounded myself with the mentors that had been with me from the very beginning and took that same approach as to what I need to do to be at the top of my game, be as efficient as possible, be the best leader that I can for this team. Here we go."
This season, just like every season, isn't like the rest. It has presented new affliction and new challenges.
The biggest challenge for Brees was being sidelined for five weeks for the first time in his career. Brees suffered a thumb injury in Week 2 of the season against the Los Angeles Rams.
The last time Brees missed a game because of an injury? Week Three of the 2015 regular season.
"Twenty-six years of football and I only missed one game (injury)," Brees said. "(Missing five games) was uncharted territory for me. I can't say I necessarily enjoyed it when it happened, but as we've discussed, there's perspective that comes along with that and silver lining and find a way to be better as a result of it."
Brees gained a new perspective standing on the sidelines for five games.
"I feel like there's always something to learn and certainly perspective can I think make you more grateful," he said. "It can, I don't know, I mean perspective is the word, right? The perspective is what allows you to maybe see it from a different angle in a different way, give you a different level of appreciation or gratitude, and maybe enlighten you to a slightly different approach or maybe something that you have not tried before that you have wanted to. There were quite a few things over the last four weeks call it that I've had a chance to see and had a chance to do that I feel like are going to make me a better player."
New Orleans did what was seemingly impossible without Brees.
Backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Saints to five straight victories, including a big-time win over Seattle on the road.
"He basically stepped into the role that I would normally have, as far as addressing the team and addressing skill players and different things throughout the week," Brees said of Bridgewater's performance during the five-week span. "He was the starting quarterback and he took on that role. Not just as the guy throwing the ball, handing off the ball, but the guy being in charge of the huddle and being a leader. He did a great job with it. I think the offense responded; the team responded.
"I can't say enough good things about him and I love the fact that our fan base has embraced him the way that they have. He's a tremendous teammate and obviously he was a big part of our success this season. Listen, I hope I'm able to stay healthy for the rest of the go, but knowing that you have a guy like that who the guys love so much and the guys trust, and is as capable as he is, that's a great thing to have."
While Brees wasn't physically on the field competing with his teammates, he said his role didn't change very much. He made observations like he normally would, gave some coaching points and was there for Bridgewater as a mentor.
In-game, Brees noticed new things he never had the chance to see before.
"Preparing to start a game, you are so locked in and you've got your routine, especially gameday you are so focused on (the opponent)," he said. "I do not ever see our defense hardly during the course of the game. Because when our drive's done, I come to the sideline, pick up the tablet and am sitting there just looking at plays, thinking about the next series and glancing up at the Jumbotron every now and then to watch. Special teams (is the same) too for that matter. Standing on the sideline, you really get to see it all from a different perspective and just a lot of the interactions and a lot of things that are taking place that, I do not know, it just makes you appreciate. It makes you appreciate being a part of this team and what we have in regards to just the type of guys and level of communication."
A month after Brees' return, New Orleans clinched its third straight NFC South title. This year the team did it with a win on Thanksgiving night on the road at Atlanta.
"It's tough to do any given year," Brees said of winning three straight division titles. "Each year is different, each one is new but three NFC South championships in a row and this one being the earliest we've been able to secure it, on Thanksgiving. It says a lot about our organization from ownership down, the culture they created and the guys they have gone out and gotten through the draft, free agency, the guys that we've developed and just the team that we have. We play in a tough division, it's a lot of great teams out there."
By no means is a conference title the finish line for New Orleans.
This team is hungry for more.
After two seasons that ended in heartbreak in the 2017 NFC Divisional playoff game at Minnesota and the 2018 NFC championship game vs. the Rams, the Saints are ready to change the narrative.
"This is what I see," Brees said. "I see us as an ascending team. We just want to continue to get better and better each week. Certainly, we do not want to take a step back. There's still a lot more to be desired. There's still a lot that we can improve upon. If we can just continue to take small steps each week we'll be OK."
"We know what's in front of us. We know what we need to do and I've seen us make improvements in certain areas when we focus on those areas. We continue to have that same focus process preparation that equals good results, that equals wins."
The Saints offense shifted this season with the additions of tight end Jared Cook and running back Latavius Murray.
Cook has meshed well with the Saints offense with 32 receptions for 459 yards and four touchdowns. Murray took over starting running back duties when Alvin Kamara was sidelined for two weeks and rushed for a combined 221 yards with three touchdowns.
"Every year is truly a new year because even if you have the same guys, they're at different stages," Brees said. "We've got all these young receivers now that are a year older and it's like, man, the light bulb starting to come on, they're able to do more things. The confidence level is even higher. You kind of ask yourself like, man, how good can we be? And that's the exciting part when you come to work every day is, is man, how good can we be? But it's still about the process. It's still about one day at a time."
And despite the multitude of injuries that New Orleans has dealt with, the team still finds a way to win.
"I think it means that we've, No. 1, got a lot of great players, great guys, great teammates," Brees said. "We work hard to be in this position, and I think we understand that at times we're going to face adversity, at times guys are going to need to step up and play, but we're all in this together. All kinds of guys stepping up and playing lights out, playing together. Being able to come together as a team builds confidence because you feel like no matter what situation we get in this team has a chance. When you believe that and you trust that, it gives you a lot of confidence.
"I love this team. I love in the face of really any adversity, which I mean, whether it's me or whether it's any other guy going down, right. It requires other guys to step up, right and pick up the slack or kind of fill a void or whatever it might be and I feel like we have had to do that, over the last couple of years. Really, throughout my entire career, you have those years where you can do it or you can't, right? And this team, I think has proven that, guys are ready to step up, guys are ready to rally, and it's brought the best out of this team, which you couldn't ask for anything more."
Brees' starting center, rookie Erik McCoy, was just four years old when Brees made his NFL debut.
Growing up, Brees idolized players like Joe Montana Troy Aikman and now the kids that grew up watching Brees are his teammates and opponents.
In his 19-year career, he has played in 271 games, made 11 Pro Bowl appearances and leads the NFL in all-time career passing yards and completion percentage.
Brees has had five 5,000-yard passing season – no other NFL quarterback has done so more than once.
He tells his new receivers stories of him and Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham.
Brees has experienced nearly everything, but there is still more.
"By no means have I arrived."