(AP) Drew Brees smiles widely and his eyes wander back to a time when he was a kid out of Purdue seeking his place in pro football.
He was marveling at the statistics posted by the likes of Dan Marino, Joe Montana and John Elway, Hall of Famers all. And he wondered ''How long do you have to play in the league to have a chance at that?''
No more marveling for the 39-year-old quarterback in his 19th NFL season. Very soon, almost certainly next week in a Monday nighter against Washington, Brees will have thrown for the most yards in league history. Yep, more than Marino, Montana, Elway, Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
He's glad it will likely come in New Orleans, where he signed in 2006 after pretty much being dumped by the Chargers, who feared his shoulder would never be healed enough for Brees to be a championship quarterback. Well, he found the perfect offense with coach Sean Payton, he won a Super Bowl for the Big Easy, and he might be leading a team good enough to win another.
''I feel like we're getting better each week and that's what's most important to me,'' Brees says. ''I feel like we're beginning to play more complementary football and not just on offense with run to pass, but really as a team. Understanding how to win football games. We've won in a lot of different ways and found ourselves in a lot of different circumstances already and it's still early in the season. These are things that strengthen you, bring you together and begin to help you form your identity as a team.''
Brees' identity as a passer in some ways has been obscured by the success of peers Manning and Brady. He's been considered by the legions of NFL followers as a great quarterback and future Hall of Famer, but not quite on the level of Manning or Brady.
That's a fair assessment when it comes to the Patriots star who has five Super Bowl rings and eight appearances in the big game. But Brees is nearly as accomplished as Manning, and certainly has done as much as Favre and Marino.
Consider that Brees probably will hold every regular-season passing record when he is done - and that day doesn't appear to be closing in. Like Marino, he's rarely had a defense capable of helping him win championships.
His passing accuracy is unequaled by anyone. His mastery of the Saints' offensive schemes, as well as his versatility and, even approaching 40, his maneuverability, are enviable.
''What makes him great?'' asks tight end Benjamin Watson, who also played with Brady and is in his 15th NFL season. ''Almost everything. His preparation, his confidence, his leadership.
''Let me tell you something. Once when I was in the weight room at the (practice) facility, I looked outside and there he was, by himself, practicing his progressions, working through everything.
''This is a Hall of Fame player who has been here (12) years, nearly 40 years old. He commands your respect with the way he plays and the way he leads.''
As most quarterbacks and leaders do, Brees spreads the credit around. Given the resilience the Saints are showing while atop the tough NFC South, he probably is correct in doing so.
''Well there's so much that goes in to it,'' Brees explains. ''I have to give a lot of credit to Sean and the entire coaching staff for the amount of time and hours they put into building a game plan each and every week. When I say the game plan and the game call and the shifts and movements and formations are completely different each week, it is completely different each week. It is a completely new offense each week, depending on who we're playing and attacking that defense.
''So there's a lot of time and effort that goes into it on it on their part, but also the players to absorb all that and be able to go out and execute it with confidence. So it works, but we work very hard at it.''
And it works because of who is at quarterback.
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