NEW ORLEANS -- Ten years ago today, the New Orleans Saints made one of the greatest free-agent scores in NFL history -- maybe the greatest -- when they brought in quarterback Drew Brees to revive a struggling franchise, help rejuvenate a city that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and resurrect his own career in the wake of a devastating shoulder injury.
Since then, Brees has led the Saints to their first Super Bowl win, practically set fire to the NFL record book and earned prestigious accolades for his off-the-field impact on the region.
The only way Brees' story could have been more mythical is if he had parted the waters of Lake Pontchartrain on his way into town.
For nearly a quarter-century, the gold standard for free-agent signings has been the first big one -- defensive end Reggie White's stunning decision to choose the small-market Green Bay Packers in 1993, the first year of unrestricted free agency.
But an ESPN survey of all 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters indicated that Brees has at least made them think about passing the torch.
White received 27 votes as the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history, while Brees received 15.5. Three selectors split their votes between the two players, and several of them described White and Brees as "1 and 1A" or vice versa. Another split his vote between White and Deion Sanders, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back years and helped lead both to Super Bowl wins. Three other voters chose Peyton Manning's career-ending stint with the Denver Broncos.
"I don't think it's possible to have a better free-agent signing than New Orleans and Drew Brees," said former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. "In a quarterback-driven league, the Saints not only recruited a prolific passer, a team leader and a champion -- they also brought in a community-minded athlete who stood front and center in the aftermath of Katrina.
"Brees has been there for New Orleans in every way. … How can you possibly top that combination?"
Several voters commented on the impact Brees had on a team that didn't sign him -- the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins, who were coached by Nick Saban at the time, were the only other serious suitor for Brees in the wake of the shoulder injury he suffered in his final game with the San Diego Chargers. The Dolphins balked because of medical concerns and decided to pursue quarterback Daunte Culpepper instead.
Less than a year later, Saban bolted for Alabama -- and he admits to this day he might still be in Miami if he had signed Brees.
Brees has said he was leaning toward Miami heading into the free-agency process that year, but the Saints quickly won him over by strenuously pursuing him and showing the kind of faith in him that he had in himself. Not to mention by far the biggest offer -- a six-year, $60 million deal that would have allowed the Saints to opt out after one year and $10 million.
They never opted out, of course, after Brees led them to their first NFC Championship Game in his first year with the team.
"New Orleans was like, 'We want you.' Like, 'We really want you. You are our guy," Brees told me while recounting the courtship process years later. "We have as much confidence in you as you have in yourself to come back from this injury and be better than you ever were before. And not only from the standpoint of the organization and the team, but also what you can do for the city,'"
New Orleans was a hard sell at the time, with the city just beginning to rebuild in the wake of Katrina and the team coming off of a 3-13 season. New head coach Sean Payton was hardly a proven commodity yet.
But those dire straits made the Saints the most aggressive suitors for Brees. They needed him more than anyone else did.
"When I came here, it was talking to Sean, talking to the rest of the coaches, talking to [owner Tom Benson], talking to [general manager Mickey Loomis], driving around town, going to restaurants. Just like, 'Man, this is what we've got. Here's our facility. Here's the offense. This is how you could be a part of it. This is what we made for you,'" Brees said. "Then I go to Miami, and it's like, 'OK, you've got this doctor's appointment, you've got this nerve test.' It was like I was there to convince them I could still play."
Former NFL executives Bill Polian, Louis Riddick and Andrew Brandt all mentioned Saban and the Dolphins when asked about where they believe Brees ranks among the all-time great free-agent signings. Miami has made the playoffs only once since then, while using 10 different starting quarterbacks in 10 years. The Saints have made the playoffs five times, with Brees starting all but two games (only one missed due to injury).
"It changed the fortunes of two franchises," said Polian, now an analyst for ESPN. "I'm not one to categorize those things, but as free-agent signings go, [Brees] is absolutely one of the all-time best."
"You can definitely make the case that [Brees is No. 1]," said Riddick, also an ESPN analyst, "because of what he did for that franchise, as far as transforming it from a team that was an also-ran and a team that people looked at as the laughingstock of the league to now a team that is a perennial playoff team and a Super Bowl winner.
"He really just put a whole city and an entire organization on his back."
Brees, 37, has won exactly 100 games over the past 10 years, including the playoffs. His 94 regular-season wins rank third over the past 10 years, behind only Tom Brady and Manning. Brees' 48,555 yards and 348 touchdown passes rank first over that span.
In fact, no quarterback has ever thrown for more yards or touchdowns in any 10-year span in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
Along the way, Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record for most consecutive games with a TD pass, a record he still holds at 54 straight games. He holds NFL records for highest completion percentage in a season (71.2 in 2011), highest completion percentage in a career (66.4) and most completions in a season (468 in 2011). He has led the NFL in passing yardage six times (another NFL record). And he ranks second, fourth, fifth and seventh on the single-season passing yardage list, having surpassed 5,000 yards four times. No other quarterback has done it more than once.
Off the field, Brees and his wife, Brittany, have been active throughout the region with their Brees Dream Foundation. Brees was named co-recipient of the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award after the 2006 season and was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 2010.
"Drew Brees is the best free-agent signing in NFL history and it's not even close," New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist and HOF voter Jeff Duncan argued. "Quarterback is the most important position in the game and teams spent countless resources trying to find a player of Brees' caliber at the position. Pro Bowl quarterbacks in their prime simply do not land on the open market, and Brees isn't just a perennial Pro Bowler, he's a future Hall of Famer.
"In addition to leading the Saints to their first Super Bowl title and breaking countless NFL passing records, he transformed the culture and perception of the entire organization. I can't think of another free agent who single-handedly did as much for his new club."
White's proponents also made the case for the cultural significance of his move as much as the impact he made on the field.
White was one of the original players who sued the NFL to force free agency into existence in 1993, paving the way for all others to come. He had already established himself as one of the NFL's all-time great defensive players with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he visited with eight teams before choosing the Packers.
Green Bay was a struggling franchise in those days, as hard as it may be to recall now. Their early Super Bowl championships had become a distant memory. And there was a significant fear that free agency would hurt the Packers even more, since Green Bay was seen as such an unattractive destination, especially for African-American players.
Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero recalled being in Michael Irvin's living room during the 1988 NFL draft when Irvin desperately wanted to avoid being drafted by the Packers.
"From the '70s through the early '90s, Green Bay was the NFL's Siberia. It's the place where teams threatened to trade their players if they were having contract issues," said Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist Pete Dougherty, who began covering the Packers the same year White arrived. "When free agency started, there was a real question whether the Packers would be able to sign African-American players. Then in the first year of free agency they get the big prize, Reggie White. It stunned the league.
"He was a dominant player and as respected among his peers as anyone in the game. … It's hard to overstate the impact it had on the franchise."
White had 68.5 sacks in six seasons with the Packers and was named either first- or second-team All-Pro each year. He helped lead Green Bay to the playoffs every season he was there, including a Super Bowl win in his fourth year with the team and another Super Bowl appearance a year later.
Several voters, however, acknowledged that as much as White did for the Packers, he also had a big assist from quarterback Brett Favre on the opposite side of the ball -- and that Green Bay's transformation began the year before White arrived, under GM Ron Wolfe, head coach Mike Holmgren and Favre.
Bleacher Report's Jason Cole also pointed out that Brees has become "synonymous with the city," much like John Elway in Denver, Joe Montana with the San Francisco 49ers and Manning with the Indianapolis Colts. That wasn't necessarily the case with White. And USA Today's Jarrett Bell pointed to Brees' longevity in New Orleans as one of the factors in his vote.
Regardless of who deserves the unofficial title of best free-agent signing of all-time, Brandt said Brees and White are both extremely rare finds.
"You just don't find players like this on the free-agent market," said Brandt, who was a vice president with the Packers in 2006, when he helped lure defensive back Charles Woodson -- another of the all-time great free-agent signings.
Among other free agents mentioned by multiple voters for this story were quarterbacks Kurt Warner (Rams, Cardinals), Rich Gannon (Raiders) and Warren Moon (Oilers), running backs Curtis Martin (Jets), Priest Holmes (Chiefs) and Marcus Allen (Chiefs), and defensive back Rod Woodson (Ravens). But none elicited as much support as White and Brees.
"Reggie was the first big free agent, and that counts for something. Drew plays the most important position, and that counts for something," said Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei, who split his vote between the two. "Both had transforming impacts on struggling franchises -- that's what separates them from all the others."