Drew Brees was never a strong-armed downfield thrower, he’s gotten by this long and this well by being precise.
But whether it’s the shoulder injury that kept him out last week or the lack of decent protection or some combination of the two, Brees is a different quarterback now.
There were a few adult throws mixed in, but Brees was largely reduced to playing small-ball in the Saints 26-20 overtime win over the Cowboys, which makes it curious that he went yard to win the game.
He averaged 6.3 yards per pass attempt for most of the game, as they were clearly focusing on him getting the ball out quickly. But that may be a necessity the rest of the year, unless something significant changes. That number pumped up to 7.2 after his last-minute-of-regulation drive, and 8.8 after his 80-yard pass to C.J. Spiller that won the game in overtime.
Brees is going through some of the same kind of late-in-his-game changes Peyton Manning has had to accept, although the recent injury makes it unclear how much of it is by choice.
Watching him labor through some throws (the super slow-motion replays on NBC showed he’s not winding up as he used to), it’s clear he’s not 100 percent. Obviously some smaller percentage of Brees gives them a better chance than 100 percent of anyone else, but it does force them to adapt.
And how well he’s able to will determine whether the Saints will be able to salvage anything of this season after a horrid start.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Raise your hand if you want to play for the Cowboys. Seriously, they need you.
Losing third-down back Lance Dunbar to a knee injury was bad enough, but then wide receiver Brice Butler went down with a hamstring, after he caught a 67-yard pass.
It’s a good thing for them that tight end Jason Witten has superhuman healing powers, because they’re running out of options.
The fact they’ll get quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant back at some point alleviates some of the worry, but getting to the point of their return with a chance might only be possible because they live in the NFC East.
2. It’ll be curious to see if the Saints can make anything of this season. Or whether they can rebuild their home field advantage.
For what used to be the toughest building in the league to leave with a win, the Saints have been hospitable hosts, having lost six straight there.
But now they’re 1-4, and have won one in a row.
3. Defensively, the Saints are kind of a grease fire. But there are some solid parts to work with, if they can only add to that number.
Rookie pass-rusher Hau’oli Kikaha is one of those parts. The second-rounder picked up his third sack of the season in the third quarter, and has shown quite a bit of potential.
He’s more of an effort rusher than a guy who gets there on raw physical gifts (though he’s not untalented), but he’s getting there often enough to be noticed.
There are guys at each level of the Saints defense you have to account for (defensive end Cameron Jordan and a healthy safety Jairus Byrd could play for a lot of teams), but there aren’t enough of them.
There are a lot of young kids who are playing a lot of snaps because why not, but guys such as Stephone Anthony, Bobby Richardson and Tyeler Davison along with Kikaha suggest there is hope it gets better some day.
4. Jerry Jones was right. The Brandon Weeden touchdown pass to Terrance Williams in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty.
It also gives Matt Cassel another week to learn the playbook, as the veteran trade acquisition was inactive again Sunday.
Weeden wasn’t offensive Sunday night, and isn’t nearly the problem.
5. Neither one of these teams is particularly disciplined.
The Saints extended several Dallas drives in the first half with penalties on their defense, but the Cowboys returned the favor in the second half.
A 12-men-on-the-field penalty gave the Saints just enough yardage to let kicker Zach Hocker try a 51-yarder, and he hit it to tie the game at 10-10 in the third.
The Cowboys were called for the same penalty last week, which makes it seem kind of inexcusable. But at the rate people are getting hurt there, some degree of confusion is probably expected.