NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees was stuck in the training room, recovering from thumb surgery early in the season, when he found a way to entertain himself.
The LSU Tigers were playing on TV, and the New Orleans Saints quarterback was able to call out some of the Tigers’ plays before they happened. “I was in there with [Saints director of sports medicine] Beau Lowery. And at the end of the game they run this play. And I said, ‘Hey, text Joe Brady right now and say, Great job checking to this certain play versus this certain look. That was a great call,'” Brees said with a mischievous grin. “Of course after the game, he gets a text back from Joe Brady saying, ‘How do you know what that’s called?’ … And he’s like, ‘I’m sitting next to Drew.'”
Fear not, LSU fans. There is nothing predictable about college football’s most dynamic offense ahead of Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App). It’s just that Brees has been mastering it for the past 14 years.
Brady — LSU’s 30-year-old wunderkind passing game coordinator — spent the previous two years as an offensive assistant with the Saints, studying film, doing research and analysis, joining in the daily offensive meetings and absorbing everything he could from the offense that would soon turn college football on its ear.
That’s why Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow spent “all offseason” watching film of Brees and the Saints, studying things like his footwork and his reads.
“I mean that’s basically what we do. We do a lot of the same stuff,” said Burrow, who explained that the philosophy behind both offenses is “getting five guys out on the route every play and making them defend every single person.”
“Anybody can get the ball on every play,” Burrow said. “We’re not designing plays to go to this one guy. We have progression reads that everyone can get the ball on. So you have to be on your toes as a defense and really understand who has each individual player, otherwise we’ll beat you.
“We make it difficult to do it and change up people’s eyes with motions and moving different guys around from the slot to the backfield to outside. We do a really good job of finding matchups that are favorable for us.”
Brady said it’s “pretty cool” to realize that Brees is now watching Burrow run the same plays that Burrow spent the summer watching Brees run.
Joe Burrow vs. Trevor Lawrence. Ed Orgeron vs. Dabo Swinney. The top-ranked team vs. the defending champ. It’s LSU vs. Clemson for the championship.
“Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play,” Brady said. “And just the fact that he’s watching those games, it kind of shows the football guy he is that he’s watching it and he sees right away, he knows the play. Then you’re seeing a guy like Joe Burrow … you’ve seen the cut-ups and now Drew is seeing you run those plays. It’s pretty cool for him, too.”
If Burrow has been the breakout star of this college football season, Brady isn’t far behind.
Brady won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country after the Tigers went from the 69th-ranked offense in 2018 to No. 1 in 2019. Their passing offense also ranked No. 1 — a quantum leap from when it ranked outside of the top 100 every year from 2014-16 (the year that head coach Ed Orgeron replaced Les Miles midseason).
Brady said “a very good portion” of LSU’s passing game and even the offensive terminology come from the Saints. But his ideas go beyond just the Saints playbook. In fact, one of the main reasons that Orgeron hired him was because of his knowledge of the run-pass option game that he developed while working as a graduate assistant at Penn State.
And LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger calls the majority of plays, though he hands the reins to Brady in several situations. So there were a lot of ideas working together to bring the Tigers’ offense out of the dark ages. But the Saints’ influence is undeniable, as ESPN analyst Matt Bowen noticed.
“When I watch the LSU offense, it is a heavily schemed pro-style route tree that resembles the New Orleans Saints — in terms of how they put defensive coverages and defensive players in conflict,” Bowen said. “And what that requires is for an elite-level quarterback to go through pro progressions, to find the voids in zone coverage and to find the matchups that are created within this offense.
“You can watch those route concepts, there’s a bunch of high-lows, there’s a bunch of flood, there’s a bunch of three-level stuff. It is leveled reads for the quarterback that require him to process information quickly, to throw on time and to anticipate where the windows are gonna be. You don’t see that a lot in college.”
You don’t even see it everywhere in the pros.
Yes, Saints coach Sean Payton has been playing chess with NFL defenses over the past 14 years with Brees as his quarterback in a modern West Coast system — famously changing up formations and personnel groupings on nearly every play throughout the first half to both confuse defenses and get a read on them.
“It has to marry to the quarterback’s strengths,” said Payton, who has admired Burrow whenever he has had the chance to watch him. “He’s one of those quarterbacks that can see and process the location and understand what the defense is taking away.”
Payton can’t take too much credit for LSU’s success.
In fact, he admitted recently that his last piece of advice to Brady was that “he was making a mistake” when he took the LSU job.
“So much for what I know,” Payton said with a laugh. “But look, I’m excited certainly for Ed and their staff and that team. It’s been really impressive.”
Brady said he doesn’t remember Payton saying that, but he admitted that “whole time was kind of a blur.”
“I don’t know if that’s what he said to me. But if he did, I’m glad I didn’t listen,” Brady joked.
Truth be told, the Saints didn’t necessarily recognize that they had the next great college football mind in their building when Brady was on their staff at his entry-level position from 2017 to ’18.
The Saints could tell Brady was sharp, though, after he was recommended for the job by Saints assistant offensive line coach Brendan Nugent, who was a coach at William & Mary when Brady played wide receiver there. They credited Brady for being a hard worker with good ideas and a good background in the RPO game, which isn’t a big part of New Orleans’ offense.
LSU’s coaches, meanwhile, were even more interested in Brady’s RPO knowledge — which is why he was invited to join longtime Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to give a presentation to LSU’s staff during the summer of 2018.
Orgeron wasn’t present for Brady’s presentation, but he heard the buzz. And after making calls to some of Brady’s former bosses, Brady was the first candidate Orgeron had in mind when a position opened up on his staff after the 2018 season.
“In the times where we’ve had an opportunity to watch the games, it’s been fun, because you have an opportunity to say, ‘Oh there’s that play’ or something you’re familiar with,” Carmichael said. “I think it’s not a shock to me with Joe Brady there and the coaching staff they have that they’re having success.”
It also helps that LSU’s offense is loaded with talent at the playmaker positions, from dynamic receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who Brees said “looks just like [former Saints running back] Mark Ingram, by the way” in the same No. 22 jersey.
But even if Burrow does have the advantage of playing with NFL-caliber talent, Bowen said his ability to run such a sophisticated pro-style offense should make him an easy sell heading into the draft.
“Guys get drafted highly, especially at the quarterback position, because they check all the boxes in terms of height, weight, speed, their ability to throw from the pocket, their arm talent. But this is more,” said Bowen, who said some of Burrow’s back-shoulder throws and ball placement away from the defense’s leverage are “Drew Brees 101.”
“This is taking all those high-level traits and putting it into an offense that transitions immediately to the National Football League on Sundays. Joe Burrow in my opinion will be very prepared to run an NFL offense because that’s what he’s doing right now.”