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Canton bound, yet underrated

NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. No doubt.

He is a Super Bowl MVP, two-time Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year, Sports Illustrated Man of the Year and Walter Payton Man of the Year. » He is the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. He is a record-holder several times over with years left to play. He is a New Orleans institution. He is among the sports world’s most coveted commercial pitchmen.

Brees sure is something else.

And despite all that, he’s yet something else: underrated.

In debating the best quarterback of all-time or even this generation, Brees’ name often arises as an afterthought to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Brady has the Super Bowl appearances. Manning has the statistics. Eli Manning, with two Super Bowl rings, and Aaron Rodgers might get more love than Brees does.

“When people make comparisons, Manning and Brady are the ones that get brought up and not Brees as much,” Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd said. “Brees does get left out.”

The Bills will get a load of Brees at 1 p.m. today in the Superdome.

Brees again has the New Orleans Saints near the top of the league in offense. They are sixth in total yards and second in passing yards. The Saints, coming off their bye, have had an extra week to prepare for the Bills.

“It starts with Drew,” said Buffalo coach Doug Marrone, who was Brees’ offensive coordinator for three seasons in New Orleans. “I think he’s an outstanding competitor.”

Discussions about the best quarterback so often revolve around Brady and Peyton Manning. Their perennial regular-season showdowns repeatedly reinforce the debate. They also dominate the conversation because they go to the playoffs every year, sometimes crossing paths there, too.

Rodgers has been to four straight postseasons. Eli Manning has won two of the past six Super Bowls.

Brees, meanwhile, has made the playoffs only five times in 12 seasons, never winning on the road. His offenses, especially in his five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, have featured better rushing attacks than Brady or Manning has had.

He’s prone to the occasional clunker performance. Brees posted a 67.5 passer rating in Week Two but escaped still-winless Tampa Bay with a victory. He threw five interceptions in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons last year and four interceptions in a home loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns in 2010.

Perhaps it’s nitpicking, but those are the lone criticisms one can conjure while trying to explain why Brees doesn’t enjoy the same widespread appreciation as his contemporaries.

“He proves it week in and week out he’s one of the best there is,” Bills backup quarterback Matt Flynn said.

Flynn was at Louisiana State when Brees signed with New Orleans in 2006. The region still was recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Brees’ presence on the field and in the community provided catharsis and relief.

“People that know the game of football,” said Flynn, “people that study it and are around it – coaches, players that have been in the league and understand the position – know that he’s right up there with everybody.

“I don’t know what else he has to really do to prove anything. To me, he’s not underrated because I rate him right up there at the top.”

Brees, 34, already has a Hall-of-Fame resume. He won a Super Bowl and his stats pop off the page.

He holds the record with 5,476 passing yards in a season. He has surpassed 5,000 yards three times. No other quarterback has done it more than once. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in seven straight seasons and at least 200 yards in 38 straight games.

He has thrown for 350 yards in 36 games, nine more times than the quarterbacks tied for second, Brady and Dan Marino.

Brees broke Johnny Unitas’ record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, extending the streak to 54.

The Saints have gained the most total yards and most passing yards since coach Sean Payton joined the club in 2006 and made signing Brees a priority.

Brady and Manning, however, are treated with a reverence Brees doesn’t have nationally.

“You’ve always got to prove yourself, honestly,” Brees said this week on a conference call with Bills reporters. “There’s always another challenge, especially when you reach this age.

“I don’t feel old, but being 34 years old in the NFL you’re considered old. There’s always those people that you feel they’re looking at you, going, ‘OK, when am I going to see the dropoff? When are the skills going to start to diminish with this guy?’

“I’m fighting it. That’s part of the battle right now for a veteran guy. You’re always trying to beat that aging process and prove the naysayers wrong.”

Kansas City Star writer Randy Covitz, on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection board, recently named the top 12 quarterbacks of all-time. Brady was fifth. Manning was sixth. Brees didn’t make the cut.

An ESPN fan poll in September rated Manning second, Brady third and Brees 12th in NFL history. Crowd-sourcing site had them slotted identically. Athlon Sports this year rated Manning third, Brady sixth and Brees 15th.

“As he goes to the bank,” said Danny Abramowicz, an original Saint, “I don’t think he worries about whether someone thinks he’s underrated. His bankroll speaks for that.”

Brees last year signed a five-year, $100 million contract extension. The deal contains $60 million in guarantees, including a $37 million signing bonus. But Rodgers and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco make more.

Abramowicz has followed Brees’ career closely. Abramowicz was the Saints’ first star, an All-Pro who led the NFL in receptions in 1969. He was a Saints radio analyst and their offensive coordinator under coach Mike Ditka in the 1990s.

“This guy has done it at a high level,” Abramowicz said of Brees. “He holds consistency records. To me, he doesn’t have to take a backseat to any of them. He’s right up there.”

Brees has been overlooked since college. NFL teams have missed out on him multiple times.

At Purdue, he demonstrated all the tools a coach would want. He graduated as the Big Ten’s most prolific passer. He had leadership traits. He was an Academic All-American who majored in industrial management and manufacturing.

But he’s listed at 6 feet and 209 pounds. NFL scouts weren’t convinced his game could translate to the pros.

Coaches like Marrone marvel about those projections now.

“It hurt being with Drew when I went back to college,” Marrone said of leaving the Saints to be Syracuse’s head coach, “because every quarterback that was about 6-feet tall, every person told me, ‘This is the next Drew Brees.’

“And there’s not many Drew Breeses – if they even come around.”

The Chargers drafted Brees with the first selection of the second round in 2001, a draft class considered weak at quarterback after Michael Vick.

Brees’ rookie season was spent as Doug Flutie’s backup. Marty Schottenheimer made Brees his starter the next season, but the Chargers encountered turbulence. Schottenheimer benched Brees for a 41-year-old Flutie in 2003.

The Chargers used their first overall pick in 2004 to draft Eli Manning and traded him to the New York Giants for a package that would become quarterback Philip Rivers, pass-rusher Shawne Merriman, defensive tackle Roman Oben and kicker Nate Kaeding.

San Diego obviously didn’t have faith in Brees as a franchise quarterback. But Brees came back in 2006 with his first Pro Bowl season and held off Rivers for two years.

In the final game of 2007, with a lucrative free-agent deal looming, Brees tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder.

The Chargers declined to re-sign him. Most teams were scared off by the six-year, $60 million price tag Brees wanted. The Miami Dolphins and Saints were his lone suitors.

Nick Saban, the Dolphins’ coach at the time, balked.

“I do remember him saying that their doctors felt like I had a 25 percent chance of coming back and playing,” Brees said. “So if you’re going off of those statistics, you make the decision based upon that.”

The Dolphins instead traded a second-round draft choice for Daunte Culpepper and his infamously bad knees.

Congratulations, Saints.

Culpepper struggled with injuries and never contributed again in a meaningful way. Brees has started 117 out of 118 games for the Saints. If not for Payton resting him twice for the playoffs, Brees would be playing his 154th straight game today, the NFL’s longest active streak for a quarterback.

“Everyone knows he’s a film junkie, but physically he puts it on the line every single day,” said Bills safety Jim Leonhard, who spent training camp with the Saints. “Not everybody does that.

“He leads in all ways, which is impressive. He walks the walk. It’s not like he’s giving lip service. He’s the first guy leading the charge. He’s a true competitor in every single thing he does.”

Brees led the NFL in touchdown passes four of the past five seasons.

His last two seasons rank among the top seven all-time in TDs. Marino is the only other quarterback on that list twice.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Brees has thrown 103 touchdowns. Bills quarterbacks would need to count backwards from today until 2008 to tally that many TDs.

And Brees’ production isn’t merely volume-based. His accuracy is sublime. He ranks third all-time in completion percentage, four-ten-thousands of a point behind Rodgers for second place.

Although Brees did lead the league in attempts in 2007 and 2008, he’s not some checkdown maestro. Brees stretches the field and is among the league leaders in deep attempts each year.

“He spreads the ball all over the place,” Abramowicz said from his home in Chicago. “If you’re a defender, you can’t be right. He just sprays the ball.

“And while everyone talks about his size, he has such accuracy. He knows how to throw, when to throw. He studies the game, and when the ball is snapped he pretty much knows where he’s going with the ball.”

Since Brees and Payton arrived in 2006, the Saints have given up a league-low 162 sacks.

The Saints also have led the NFL in third-down conversions over that span, advancing the chains 47.4 percent of the time.

“He never feels defeated. He trusts his guys,” Leonhard said. “He trusts his receivers, his tight ends, his backs to where if they get a matchup he likes, they’ll win it.

“It’s not like he’s waiting, ‘Is this guy going to get open?’ He knows, ‘This guy is going to do his job and win on his route, and I’m going to throw it where it needs to be.’ ”

While defenses are designed to confuse a quarterback, Brees has the same craftiness as Brady or Peyton Manning to manipulate an opponent against itself.

“He’s playing chess with the defense,” Bills cornerback Nickell Robey said. “He’ll show you something, then motion a guy just to get you to move and see what coverage y’all in. The motion might not even pertain to his play, but he moves that guy to see if y’all in zone, y’all in man.”

While Manning has been blessed to play with Hall of Fame-caliber receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Brees’ supporting class has resembled Brady’s menagerie over the years.

Brees’ top touchdown target is Marques Colston. Second on that list is Lance Moore. Fourth is Robert Meachem. None is a Canton candidate. Tight end Jimmy Graham, third on the list, is elite when healthy.

Brees, though, never had a supreme defense like Brady did with New England’s championship teams. The Saints’ defense has ranked an average of 21st in yards allowed during Brees’ tenure and has ranked higher than 11th once.

Nevertheless, Brees is in a select category of active players who will finish their playing days with magnificent careers that qualify as legacies.

Asked this week what he thought of his legacy, Brees replied there will be time to reflect on it years from now.

“There’s still so much left to accomplish in my mind,” Brees said. “I’m certainly not satisfied.”