Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn’t the passer he used to be.
He led the NFL in passing yards per game in 2017 but hasn’t come within 50 yards in any year since. He traded danger for efficiency, leading the league in completion percentage every season since, including this one.
At 41, Brees likely will be making his final stop Sunday at Soldier Field. He’ll join NBC Sports whenever his career ends, which might be after this season.
In another way, however, Brees — a 13-time Pro Bowl pick — is still the player he used to be: a franchise-defining, culture-changing, Super Bowl-winning icon.
He’s also the greatest free-agent signing in the history of U.S. sports.
Pay attention, Bears fans, because the rare circumstance that made Brees a high-ceiling bet 14 years ago might repeat itself with a different passer — the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott — in March. And if this season has taught the Bears anything, it’s that they need to find a permanent solution at the most important position in sports. Nick Foles, who quarterbacked Austin (Texas) Westlake High School 10 years after Brees did, is a short-term fix, at best.
The Chargers made Brees a second-round pick in 2001. When he struggled, they picked Philip Rivers fourth overall three years later. That sparked Brees, who won 20 games in the next two seasons.
He was playing the final game of his franchise-tag season in 2005 when the unimaginable happened: He dislocated his throwing shoulder, tearing his labrum and rotator cuff. The Chargers, scared off by the injury and eager to play Rivers, didn’t offer Brees a second franchise tag.
Brees received serious free-agent interest from only two teams. The Dolphins polled shoulder experts, who doubted he would return to normal, and traded for Daunte Culpepper instead.
That left the Saints, who signed Brees to a six-year, $60 million contract. Fans reeling from Hurricane Katrina months earlier embraced him and the team. Three seasons later, they won the Super Bowl.
After having only one Pro Bowl quarterback in franchise history — sound familiar? — the Saints landed the most precious commodity in the game and have kept him for 15 seasons.
As the Saints’ pro scout, Bears general manager Ryan Pace was a small part of the bold move in 2006. He should consider a similar tack — with a different quarterback — this offseason.
Three weeks ago, Prescott suffered a similarly gruesome injury: a compound break and dislocation of his right ankle. He was only the third quarterback to play a season on the franchise tag, joining Brees with the Chargers in 2005 and Kirk Cousins with Washington in 2016 and 2017.
The Cowboys could give Prescott the franchise tag again next season. But as they plummet to the bottom of the NFL, the Cowboys might have a rare chance of their own this offseason: an opportunity to draft a quarterback in the top five.
Would the Cowboys let Prescott leave via free agency rather than give him the tag? Might they trade him? Either way, the Bears should be paying attention. Already in salary-cap trouble, the Bears might have a hard time finding a way to afford Prescott. But a franchise whose greatest quarterback — Sid Luckman — was born in 1916 can’t afford not to consider him.
In the meantime, the Bears will be able to watch a shining example Sunday of what happens when fate and bold thinking collide.
Only one coach/quarterback pairing — the Patriots’ Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — have more victories since the AFL/NFL merger than Brees and coach Sean Payton.
‘‘The quarterback has been constant,’’ Payton said this week. ‘‘That’s unusual for 15 years, and we don’t take it for granted.’’
Even if Brees does throw the ball a little shorter now that he’s in his 40s.
‘‘I just know this,’’ Bears coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘I know Drew a little bit. What he’s done in his career, it doesn’t matter how he’s done it. He is one of the best to ever play this game.’’