Better with age? Drew Brees closing in on fifth 5,000-yard season

METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees needs 142 passing yards on Sunday to reach 5,000 for the fifth time in his career.

No other quarterback has ever done it more than once. And no other QB is on pace to reach that milestone this season.

Yet Brees’ prolific numbers with the New Orleans Saints have become so mundane that they barely even cause a ripple anymore. He also ranks second in the NFL with 34 touchdown passes but didn’t even make the Pro Bowl.

Brees knows the score, though.

He knows that such accolades come with winning — which he said is the statistic that matters most to him. And the Saints haven’t been doing enough of that lately, with 7-9, 7-9 and 7-8 records over the past three seasons.

“Yeah, yeah, it is (rewarding to have such a good season at age 37),” said Brees, who is arguably playing his best football since 2011 after battling some minor injuries over the past two years. “But at the same time, I’m very much focused on the process to get to the result. The result is I want to be winning, making the playoffs and having a chance at winning a championship.

“So while I feel like there were a lot of good things this year, I feel like we can do even better next year. And certainly, I can do even better next year to get us to where we need to go.”

Brees said it’s his goal to get better with age.

“That’s my goal every year is to get better in some way, to evaluate my performance from the year before during the offseason and try to make improvements wherever I can,” Brees said. “And that might be just a little tweak of my routine. That might be trying something new in regards to my preparation. It might be doing something different in regards to my recovery. There’s a lot of things that I feel like I’ve tried to implement every offseason to prepare myself to play my best during the season, and so that’s always my goal, is to improve and get better.”

Brees has never lacked for confidence, so he didn’t need a season like this for personal validation.

But remember, Brees’ longevity was a big topic of conversation this past offseason while he and the Saints were negotiating over a long-term contract extension. And the Saints wound up only signing him to a one-year extension worth $24.25 million in new money through 2017.

Now Brees will once again be heading into the final season of his contract next year. If anything, he has only increased his value.

“I’m not surprised,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who talked about Brees’ training habits and work ethic, which Payton has always lauded. “It’s never taken for granted. Certainly we’ve changed as the years have gone by maybe in what we’ve tried to do and how many balls he’ll throw early in the week. But he’s as much in tune to that as anyone, and I think he does a great job adjusting and adapting to the schedules and then getting himself both mentally and physically ready to play each week.”

Payton also said the Saints have had more success around Brees this season.

“I think that in some regards, part of what we’re doing now with our running game and what we’re doing now with our protections and how those guys up front are playing are helping in allowing him to have that overall success that you’re wanting to have,” Payton said. “It’s not just that we’re throwing the football. I think it’s important that we’re scoring, our third-down numbers are strong, our red-zone numbers are strong. And I think that balance that we’ve talked about in these last few offseasons, we’ve seen that more now this year. And that’s something we’ve gotta continue to build on.”

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn — whose team will host Brees on Sunday — certainly has a great appreciation for how long Brees has been able to maintain his elite level of play.

“There’s probably a number of us that would consider Drew as a hell of a coach if he wanted to be,” Quinn said with a laugh. “He has a very clear understanding of where to go with the ball. The anticipation, ‘I want this coverage, I want to go here against this route, I like this matchup’ — those are the things that come with the 10 or 11 years of experience (together with Payton in New Orleans).

“So I would say it’s pretty rare in our day and age to get a quarterback and head coach that are together for 11 years. And I think that’s quite a story that we don’t all talk about on a national level very often. I don’t know how often that happens but it would seem to me, and I’m totally guessing, that it’s pretty rare.

“I think it’s the amount of reps in a system that you can have — think about the old Bruce Lee line, ‘Don’t worry about the man with 10,000 kicks, worry about the man who has one kick 10,000 times.’ I’d say over 10 or 11 years, that’s a hell of a lot of kicks.”

Russell Westbrook: Was thanking trainer’s daughter, not Kyrie Irving

OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder guard Russell Westbrook strongly denied he yelled “Thank you Kyrie!” as he ran off the court following his pregame warm-up routine before Sunday’s 112-100 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“What? F— do I look like? For real,” Westbrook said. “When would I ever say that? Clear what up? What video?”

A video of Westbrook sprinting into the team’s tunnel toward the locker room was posted to Twitter by the Thunder’s official account, and as he made his way off the court he yelled a “thank you” to someone. The video spread on social media, with many believing Westbrook was shouting thank you to Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, who hit a game-winning jumper with 3.4 seconds left to defeat former teammate Kevin Durant and his Golden State Warriors.

Westbrook, though, attempted to clarify and said he was thanking Jayme Sharpe, the daughter of Thunder trainer Joe Sharpe. Jayme can be seen sitting baseline in the video, right in front of where Westbrook took the shot.

“I would never say no other man’s name like that, for one,” Westbrook said. “‘Thank you Kyrie,’ who do I look like? I was talking to my trainer’s daughter, whose name is Jayme. Thank you, Jayme. I’m not going to keep going on that. I’m going to keep my spirit up because I’m not about to even involve myself in no dumb stuff like that. So next question, man.”

The timing also doesn’t line up. Westbrook concluded his pregame routine with the walk-off shot at roughly 4:02 p.m. local time. Irving didn’t hit his game winner until right at 4:15. Westbrook was asked if he watched any of the Cavs-Warriors game, and noted that he was on the court warming up during a large portion of it.

Westbrook concludes every warm-up by taking a 3-point shot while standing out of bounds in the corner, behind the backboard. He has a long-running joke bet with the Thunder staffers who sit nearby during his warm-up.

Patriots determined not to stall at finish like they did in ’15 regular season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s football déjà vu for the New England Patriots in the final two games. Just like the end of the 2015 season, when they were 12-2, they finish this season with games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

What they’re aiming to avoid, once again at 12-2, are similar results — back-to-back losses.

“It’s kind of like we’re in the same position [as] last year — same opponents, obviously same goals,” safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s captains, said Wednesday. “Last year, whatever we thought of how good of a position we were in and ‘blah, blah, blah,’ the season didn’t end the way we wanted [it] to.”

Part of ensuring that doesn’t happen this year is by adopting “a huge sense of urgency,” which isn’t always easy for players at a time of year when many around them are relaxing and enjoying holiday cheer.

“The biggest thing we always talk about is past games, last year, and the biggest thing is learning from those experiences,” McCourty said. “Obviously those games have no bearing on this year’s games, but just learning, ‘What did you do that week? Did you go the extra step to try to prepare? Did you go the extra mile at the toughest part of the season — two games left, Christmas, New Year’s, holidays — just trying to put in a little extra?’”

McCourty said that’s something that he and fellow captains Dont’a Hightower, Tom Brady and Matthew Slater, among other veterans, have been stressing to the rest of the locker room.

The message, of course, starts at the top with Bill Belichick.

“He talked about last year being in the same position — two games left, trying to play your best football to end the season,” McCourty said. “I think that’s what he’s [stressing] — finish down the stretch, something that we obviously struggled with last year.”

Part of the Patriots’ struggles last year were the result of an unusual offensive game plan in the season finale at Miami, when they ran the ball 21 times in the first half and threw just five passes. But that aside, the message has been loud and clear inside Gillette Stadium this week, with the team undergoing a “reset” of its goals after capturing the AFC East title in Denver.

“We all have an understanding that we need to do more,” said Slater, the six-time Pro Bowl special-teamer. “One of our goals, yes, is to win the division, but that’s not all we came here to do. We understand we have a lot of work to continue to do to hopefully get to where we want to be.

“We’ve had a taste of the ultimate goal. A lot of people around here have had that taste. Once you get a taste of it, I think it’s something you’ll always [want more of]. … Nobody is complacent. Nobody is popping the champagne bottles or anything like that.”

Clippers say Blake Griffin will have knee surgery, expected to miss 3-6 weeks

LA Clippers star Blake Griffin will have arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to miss three to six weeks, the team announced Monday.

Griffin will have the procedure to remove loose bodies from his right knee, according to the team. He missed a game last weekend because of a sore right knee but had been playing through it since the issue began.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers told the Orange County Register that the injury was not suffered during the loss to the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 7 and described it as more cumulative in nature.

Griffin missed his rookie season with an injury to his left knee, having surgery in January 2010. He also missed three months last season after breaking his right hand in a fight in January with the Clippers’ former assistant equipment manager.

Griffin played just 35 regular-season games then reinjured his left quadriceps tendon in April during the playoffs, forcing him to miss the final two games of the Clippers’ first-round series loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Griffin is averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 26 games this season.

49ers WR Torrey Smith: Concussion ‘pretty scary, but things are better’

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers receiver Torrey Smith had never been knocked out on a football field before Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

Smith said Thursday he was unconscious after he landed awkwardly on his head and shoulder while attempting to come down with a catch in the third quarter.

After being motionless on the field for a few moments, Smith eventually was taken back to the locker room by cart with a towel draped over his head.

“Apparently I was crying there, I was crying in [the locker room] about how frustrated I was,” he said. “I don’t remember anything. That’s one of the things that comes with it. But as long as I’m feeling better each and every day, that’s all I’m concentrating on right now.”

Smith said he remembered the play call that was sent in before the snap, but there’s a gap in his memory after that. He couldn’t recall anything from then until he rode home from Levi’s Stadium on Sunday evening.

“I’ve never been knocked out before and I’ve never had a concussion like that, either,” Smith said. “It’s pretty scary, but things are better and they’re just making sure that I am taking the right steps.”

After watching the play, Smith said he thought it could have been worse, though he was frightened by what he saw.

“You see these things on like YouTube,” he said. “I’ve seen people get knocked out in games before. But definitely when you look at it and it’s you, it’s more like a dream afterwards than something that really happened. It’s weird.”

Smith, who has 20 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns this season, remains in the concussion protocol. He has not participated in practice all week as the Niners prepare for a game in Atlanta.

“Odds of me playing are probably slim,” Smith said. “It probably wouldn’t look too good, being as I was knocked out anyway.”

Smith doesn’t intend to shut it down for the season, but did say he wants to be thorough, especially given the nature of the injury.

“If I feel good, I’ll play,” Smith said. “Hopefully I am feeling good next week. That’s the goal.

“You never want to go into something and your health is at risk. It’s something you want to be smart with. I have two kids, so you kind of thing long-term on things like that. So I don’t think it’s worth rushing it back. Even if we were in contention for the playoffs or whatever, I would still try to be as smart as possible. You trust the guys that are here. I’ll end up being all right.”

A.J. Green (hamstring) set to return to Bengals practice

A.J. Green will take a step towards returning to game action.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Monday he expects the Pro Bowl receiver to practice on Wednesday. Lewis called Green’s outlook “partly sunny,” per the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Green has missed the past three games after suffering a hamstring injury early in a Week 11 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Getting back on the practice field is the first step for Green’s potential return for the 5-7-1 Bengals, currently third in the AFC North.

Green is 36 receiving yards shy of his sixth straight 1,000-yard season. He could join Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history with 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of his first six seasons.

Andy Dalton has played well the past two weeks without Green. The Bengals’ quarterback has completed more than 72 percent of his passes with four touchdowns to zero interceptions in wins over the Eagles and Browns.

Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh on Sunday, travels to Houston on Christmas Eve and faces the Ravens at home to close out the season.

As Vikings face Blake Bortles, QB Class of 2014 remains an enigma

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback search of 2014 took them across the country, to meet with players in restaurants and hotel rooms, on practice fields and in front of whiteboards, as they joined a handful of other teams in what amounts to the NFL’s annual search for happily-ever-after by way of speed dating.

The Vikings took Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles out to dinner in Orlando following his pro day in March 2014, but by the end of the spring, their months-long search had put two names above Bortles’ and everyone else’s on their draft board: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, followed closely by Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, had become enamored enough with Bortles to spend the third overall pick on him and stake their future on the quarterback.

Two-and-a-half years later, as Bortles faces the Vikings for the first time in his career, it’s a logical moment for one of our periodic checks on the Class of 2014 — which, depending on how you look at it, can be characterized as anything from eclectic to enigmatic. Bortles, who has started every game for the Jaguars since Week 4 of 2014, threw 35 touchdown passes last season but leads the league in interceptions for the second straight season. Manziel, who went to the Cleveland Browns with the 22nd overall pick, is out of the league thanks to a long list of personal demons. Bridgewater, who led the Vikings to a division title in 2015 and was named as an injury replacement to the Pro Bowl, tore his left ACL and dislocated his knee during the Vikings’ final preseason practice on Aug. 30. And the quarterback drafted after all of them, Oakland’s Derek Carr, is a MVP candidate in 2016.

It’s been an eventful start for a group of quarterbacks that elicited polarized reactions during the 2014 draft, and as the Vikings face the Jaguars this weekend, desperately in need of a win after losing six of seven games, they’ll hope they can get the better of the one quarterback they didn’t have the chance to take two years ago.

“He’s a lot like the guy we looked at when he was coming out,” Zimmer said. “He’s got a big, strong arm. He’s an athlete. He’s been making a lot of plays with his legs. The scramble tape this week is twice as big as any other tape. He can make all of throws. He’s got a good, strong arm, big rangy athlete.”

Bortles has run for 325 yards already this season, after posting 729 during his first two years, but his 50 interceptions in that time are the main reason why he admitted Wednesday his season “hasn’t been great — not the results you’ve wanted, not the personal play I’ve wanted.” While he said he believes the Jaguars’ offense is headed in the right direction under new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Bortles is coming off a game against the Denver Broncos where he completed just 19 of 42 passes for 181 yards, while being picked off twice.

“He’s thrown a lot of interceptions, but don’t get it wrong: He makes throws,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He forces passes from time to time, but he’ll still make great throws. He gives his receivers time to run backyard routes, other than the route that was called. We’ve got to stay on those guys in coverage, keep it tight on them so we can stop him from scrambling around and giving his guys time to get open.”

Bridgewater operated by a different ethic during his two years as the Vikings’ starter, using his feet to extend plays but generally finding ways to limit turnovers and keep the Vikings out of trouble. Carr, by most lights, has been the quarterback to strike the best balance between precision and aggressiveness. He’s played behind the offensive line his older brother David never had (and, for that matter, the one Bortles and Bridgewater lacked during their first seasons), and the Raiders are 10-2 while Carr has thrown for 24 touchdowns against five interceptions for former Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

While the Raiders are in a fight for home-field advantage, the Vikings are trying to keep their playoff hopes alive after trading their first-round pick for Sam Bradford following Bridgewater’s injury. The 2-10 Jaguars, meanwhile, have fielded questions about whether Bortles should be benched in his third season. For the QB Class of 2014, it seems, common ground will continue to be hard to come by.

Bears QB Jay Cutler to have season-ending shoulder surgery

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a torn right labrum and will be placed on injured reserve, coach John Fox announced Thursday.

“We did try to exhaust all the non-surgical remedies. Jay is a tough guy and proved that to me in the past,” Fox said. “We did multiple different types of rehab. It’s been a couple weeks now. Now the next alternative is to have surgery. He’ll have surgery on Saturday.”

Cutler, 33, suffered the tear in Chicago’s loss at New York on Nov. 20 but finished the game.

Fox initially described the injury as “day to day.”

“He’s tough and waited the weeks doing a lot of rehab,” Fox said. “They are in there doing rehab at all hours of the day. There were some different treatments — I’m not going to get into all the specifics — but he did things you do to try and avoid surgery. They didn’t take form like they were expecting, and we’re at the surgical mode at this point.”

Cutler’s future in Chicago is in question. Since the guaranteed portion of Cutler’s contract runs out after 2016, the Bears would take a $2 million cap hit if they trade or release Cutler in the offseason, but the move would open up $13 million worth of space.

Fox refused to discuss Cutler’s long-term status.

“Right now we have five games left and all of our focus is on San Francisco,” Fox said. “The offseason is the offseason. We are not there yet.”

Cutler is 51-51 with the Bears since he arrived in 2009 from the Denver Broncos. During that span, Cutler ranks 26th in the NFL in Total QBR, 25th in completion percentage, 27th in yards per attempt and 35th in touchdown to interception ratio — among 47 qualifying quarterbacks. Cutler led the Bears to one playoff berth in 2010.

Cutler posted a career-high 92.3 quarterback rating under former coordinator Adam Gase last season, but he appeared in only five games in 2016.

Aside from the torn labrum, Cutler missed five games because of a thumb injury. He finishes the year with four touchdowns and five interceptions (78.1 passer rating). Cutler also lost two fumbles.

Still, Cutler’s current playcaller, Dowell Loggains, said he learned a lot about the embattled quarterback.

“Just how tough he is,” Loggains said. “How much he cares. How much the team means to him. That’s been incredible to watch. There is a perception, and then there is a reality of that. It’s been really fun the last two years being able to coach him. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”