Offensive players are often judged by their stats and winning influence, later to be compared to each other, as fans and pundits argue over who is the best. These standouts at the quarterback and running back positions have had their careers devalued for illegitimate reasons. Both have everything that warrants a top-5 position player, however they have not gained the respect of one. These two athletes have had highly distinguished careers in regard to statistics and winning impact, and are both regarded as great players. However, I am arguing that these competitors are not only great, but that their careers have been markedly undervalued. Each player has a respective place in my mind as to where they rank at their respective positions, but both are higher in my mind than in the opinions of the majority of football fans.
Quarterback: Drew Brees
‘Drew Brees, really? Everyone knows how great Brees is. He isn’t undervalued.’ That’s what some of you may be thinking right now, and if you are, then you’re only partly right. Brees is an extremely well-known quarterback, however his contributions to the game have been severely downplayed due to others at his position. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have snatched the public eye away from Brees for a number of different reasons. Brady winning evermore championships, and Manning breaking countless passing records have all diverted the football world away from Brees’ success. However, what do these two quarterbacks have that Drew Brees doesn’t?
Brady and Manning have more championships than Brees, but they also had more weapons at their disposal. Brady has played under arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, and no disrespect to Sean Payton, but he could never utilize ordinarily mediocre position players and make them into superstars as Belichick does. Manning, on the other hand, had one of the greatest defenses of the 2000’s to carry him to his second Super Bowl victory in his final NFL season. This in no way tarnishes the legacy of those two players, it only illustrates that one man cannot carry a team to a Super Bowl, and Drew Brees has never been surrounded with the greatness that Brady and Manning were in their championship seasons. He lead the Saints to a Super Bowl victory without the level of assistance that most have in a championship run. The Saints’ leading rusher that year had only 793 yards, and the defense was nothing special, with the 17th best defensive efficiency rating. Brees has some of the best statistics the league has ever seen, and a Super Bowl MVP to show for his illustrious career, but he is rarely in the top-5 quarterback conversation. Brees is a ‘unicorn’ at quarterback, and he should be considered one of the greatest to ever play the game, and this is why…
Since his move to the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Brees has thrown for at least 4,300 yards in every season, and for over 5,000 in five of those twelve years. He has compiled an unbelievable 70,445 passing yards in his seventeen-year career, averaging a whopping 4,837 yards per season with the Saints. If he throws for 1,500 more career yards, he will break Peyton Manning’s all-time career passing yards record. He is also tied for third with Brady on the all-time career passing touchdown record with 288, and Brady has been in the league a year longer than Brees. If he continues to put up the numbers he has for only two more seasons, he will break that record too. I feel that fans might finally begin to give Brees the attention he has earned after he has broken Manning’s passing yards record. There is finally a slot for Brees to showcase his greatness, and the sports world will take notice.
Astonishingly, Brees has never even won an MVP award, and I have a theory on why that is. Since he became a every-day starter in New Orleans, fans began to expect exceptional things from him. Brees carried the Saints through the 2009 regular season and earned Super Bowl MVP that same year, but nobody talks about that. He has lead the league in passing yards seven times in twelve seasons, but nobody talks about that. He threw for 5,208 in his age-37-38 season, an unprecedented feat for a player of that age, but nobody talks about that. To give context, only four other players have thrown for over 5,000 yards in a single season in NFL history, none of whom did so more than once, while Brees has done so five times. The sports world has begun to expect nothing less than MVP-worthy numbers from Brees every year, so they think something along the lines of: ‘why would that merit an MVP award? He’s just being Drew Brees.’ However, just because it isn’t extraordinary for him, doesn’t mean it isn’t extraordinary. Brees has constantly produced incredible numbers, has broken countless records already, and will shatter more in the near future. If he plays just two more seasons of Brees-quality football, he will be the NFL all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and career completion percentage, which he leads right now with a 66.9% rating. Those statistics and at least one championship season should merit much more respect for his career than he gains now.
Brees’ legacy is tainted because of his lack of Super Bowl wins, however it is unjustified to rank quarterbacks based on rings. If we did so, Trent Dilfer of the 2000 Ravens would be right up there with Brees and Rodgers… I don’t think I have to explain why that is invalid. The phrase ‘you are only as strong as your weakest link’ speaks volumes in the case of Drew Brees. He has always had a weakness on some side of the ball. Whether it be the mediocracy of the run game, the suspension of Sean Peyton, or one of the worst defenses in the league, Brees has dealt with many hurdles that have impeded him from winning championships. Brees’ statistical rankings and presence on the field demand more recognition from football fans everywhere. Therefore, I truly believe he should be in the conversation of the greatest quarterback.
Running Back: Curtis Martin
Eleven-year veteran Running Back Curtis Martin was the model of consistency for an NFL running back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Martin was never a big-play running back, but he got the necessary yardage to keep drives alive consistently. He was a dual-threat back, catching balls out of the backfield frequently, making him all the more spectacular. The name Curtis Martin does not hold the same cache as backs such as Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, or Adrian Peterson, however, his contributions were just as remarkable.
Martin burst onto the scene in his 1995 rookie season with the New England Patriots, rushing for 1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns in a well-deserved Rookie of the Year campaign. Martin rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season in which he played at least thirteen games. He, along with Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, are the only two running backs to ever rush for over 1,000 yards in their first ten NFL seasons; that’s pretty good company if you ask me. His only season in which he finished with under 1,000 yards, was his final season in 2005, as he only played in 12 games due to injury. Martin finished his eleven-year career with 90 career rushing touchdowns and 14,101 total rushing yards, ranking forth all time in NFL history behind only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. He averaged an astonishing 1,282 rushing yards per season in his career, exceeding that of the all-time leader in career rushing yards Emmitt Smith (1224). In addition, he out-rushed Eric Dickerson (1,205), Ladainian Tomlinson (1,244), and Adrian Peterson (1,116), and only five yards less than Bears’ legend Walter Payton (1,287). I feel that yards per season is an extremely underrated statistic due to what it reveals about the stability of a player from year-to-year. Head coaches look for players who can produce efficiency over a long time period, and nobody did that better than Curtin Martin in his time.
Martin’s presence with both NFL franchises that he joined was undeniably influential. After his first three seasons spent in New England, he bade farewell to Foxborough and rejoined his first NFL head coach and ‘father figure’ Bill Parcells in New York. In his first season in 1998, he took a team who had missed the playoffs every year since 1991, and carried them to the AFC Championship game in a heartbreaking 23-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. In the process, he rushed for 1,287 yards and 8 touchdowns, and was named to his third career Pro Bowl. He proceeded to take the Jets to three more playoff berths in his final seven NFL seasons, reaching a total of four playoff appearances in eight years. This total is one more than the franchise had in the 22-year span before Martin signed with the team, only going to the playoffs three times in that stretch. Martin’s play in the Jets’ organization was undoubtedly dominant, and his greatness was solidified as his career proceeded.
Unlike many skilled position-players, Martin never showed signs of declining offensive attributes as he aged into his thirties, delivering two of his best seasons at age thirty and thirty-one. In his 2003, age thirty season, he rushed for 1,308 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in his 2004 campaign, he had career highs in rush attempts, rushing yards, and yards per attempt, as he carried the ball 371 times for 1,697 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 4.6 yards per carry. All these career-highs in volume and efficiency at age thirty-one is astonishing for a back of that age, showing he could have played high-quality football for longer than he did. This begs the question: what could have been for Curtis Martin? Martin’s career came to an abrupt end the next season after twelve games, tearing cartilage in his right knee in week two of the 2005 season. As he aggravated the injury throughout the season, his ability to run became weaker, so his season and career came to a close as a result. Martin’s incredible stat line in 2004 floods the mind with possibilities of what Martin could have accomplished if he were able to stay healthy for a few more seasons. Pass Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing yards list? Get to 100 career rushing touchdowns? Bring the Jets a Super Bowl? All possible, but never will be known.
Martin’s greatness is clouded by his moderate play style. Martin was a strong, fast back with extreme elusiveness, but while all of these aspects were well above average, none of them stood out among the greats. Many well-known backs are trademarked for some aspect of their running: Sanders for his juke moves and break-away speed, Payton for his power, and Dickerson for his mammoth size. However, Martin didn’t have a defining quality. He utilized his football IQ, and a combination of speed, power, and patience to do the ‘dirty-work’ as they say. He did what his team needed from him, but he did not break highlight-reel runs weekly. He influenced his teams’ success greatly during his career, but his legacy is weakened because of his lack of flash. I am not going to be so neglectful to claim Martin as the greatest running back of all time, however I will be bold enough to suggest that he is top-5 in NFL history. I say this because other than Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and Jim Brown, I can think of no other running backs that had the constant success of Martin, who relied heavily on the run-game. Martin perpetually produced statistical success and winning seasons, something very few other backs were able to do for a franchise, and it is for this reason that I consider him a top-5 halfback of all time.