"I do have a plan in my mind for how long I'm going to play," Brees said. "Last year was probably the first time where I really said, 'All right, play it like it's your last. I mean, truly play it like it's your last.'
"I think for a long time, you're playing and you're just thinking it's going to last forever. At some point, you got to realize I'm more towards the end of my career than I am the beginning. But last year, I really made the point to just enjoy every moment."
The plan to have fun certainly worked, as Brees helped guide the Saints to an 11-5 record and the NFC South title on the heels of three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2014 to 2016.
With the Saints unleashing a balanced attack last season, Brees completed 386 of 536 pass attempts for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He established an NFL-record completion rate of 72 percent.
"The success had a lot to do with it, but it was enjoying those moments," Brees told Tomlinson. "I don't want to take it for granted. I want to play it like it's my last -- even though I don't think it is -- and just enjoy every moment."
Nevertheless, what made Brees' comments compelling was he hadn't previously stated to the media how he viewed the 2017 season when it came to his decorated career. Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi expressed surprise last week when told what Brees shared on NFL Network.
"Well, I didn't hear it," Lombardi told NFL.com. "Now, you're depressing me."
Lombardi was joking, of course, but he also understands the Saints will eventually have to face life after Brees.
"Obviously, he's at an age where those questions are always going to come up," Lombardi said. "But I still see a guy who loves the game and is attacking it as hard -- if not harder -- than he ever has. I don't see any signs of him slowing down, but he's got four young kids and it's a demanding game."
'WE'RE PLAYING WITH A LIVING LEGEND'
Brees, an 11-time Pro Bowler, ranks as one of the most prolific passers in league history, and he became just the third quarterback to throw for 70,000 yards in his career, a feat accomplished in Week 16 of the 2017 season. Brees' 70,445 career passing yards currently trail Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre (71,838) and Peyton Manning (71,940).
In 2017, he posted a 12th career 4,000-yard passing campaign, a milestone that leaves Brees two behind Manning, the all-time leader in the category. Brees is also the only quarterback in league history to eclipse 5,000 yards passing in a season more than once -- Brees has accomplished the feat five times (2008, 2011-13, 2016).
"I think everyone realizes he's not going to play for 10 more years, and, man, this window is open," Lombardi said. "Let's go do it."
Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has 196 catches for 2,382 yards and 14 touchdowns through his first two pro seasons, also fully grasps the scenario and hopes the team can deliver.
"It's something that he deserves with his career that he's had, the example of what he means to this organization, what a championship means to this organization," Thomas said. "It's something we want to take ownership of and help send him out the right way."
Thomas' goal extends beyond the offense, which has consistently ranked among the league's best since Brees arrived in 2006.
The Saints' defense, which showed vast improvement in 2017, also understands it won't have Brees around forever, and there is a sense of urgency.
"We just know we're playing with a living legend," cornerback Ken Crawley said. "It helps us strive harder. We're not just playing for the coaches. At the end of the day, we're playing for those guys we go in the trenches with."
"To know you have a quarterback like Drew Brees, who is arguably in the discussion for the best of all time," Rankins said. "And to know how he works, to know the amount of effort he puts in going out there each Sunday, putting us in the best position to win, it would be wrong for us to not reciprocate that feeling of wanting to go out there and let him go out on top."
WHAT MAKES BREES GREAT
But like with Brady, age is just a number when it comes to Brees, who stays on top of his game with a structured offseason workout regimen.
Because of the way he takes care of himself, Brees has proven durable, appearing and starting in all but two games in his 12 seasons with the Saints. He also recently told reporters at Saints training camp he has looked to another sport to assist with the tweaking of his routine, including talking to former MLB pitcher Nolan Ryan.
"I know what works for me," Brees said. "I'm very in tune with my body. I listen to my body. That tells me when I can push it, when I need to scale back maybe a little bit because, at the end of the day for us, it is just like a Major League Baseball pitcher (who) knows he is pitching every five days.
"What does he have to do in those other four days in order to get himself in the best position to throw when it is his time up? For me, in thinking about the season, and it's once every seven days ... And so, what do I have to do in those other six days in order to put myself in the best position to go out on Sundays and perform well?"
Brees and Brady are always in the discussion when the subject turns to elite quarterbacks in the league, and they have a lot in common.
Saints coach Sean Payton admits he hasn't worked with an elite QB in his prime years outside of his own current signal-caller, but he pointed out athleticism, accuracy, intelligence and strength of character as attributes often found among the NFL's top passers.
Another characteristic typically found in elite quarterbacks is a dedication to fine tune their craft to get desired results.
"These guys are trained differently than maybe 20 years ago," Payton said. "They do such a good job in their offseason, their diets and their sleeping. In all areas, they are clearly that competitive, and what's most important is winning. Those are some of the traits or some of the things that you look at when you look across the league as opposed to just in your own team."
Lombardi, who worked with Matthew Stafford in Detroit for two seasons, echoed Payton, adding that the top quarterbacks believe in themselves and don't shrink in the face of pressure.
"Drew definitely wants the ball and Stafford (is) the same way," Lombardi said. "I think that's what makes the great players great. Day after day, game after game, they're willing to put themselves on the line and say, 'Hey, put it on my shoulders and we'll win or we'll lose based on what I do.' "
THE HOME STRETCH
Through 17 seasons, Brees ranks as the NFL's all-time most accurate passer (66.9 completion percentage). He ranks second in completions (6,222), third in yards passing (70,445), third in touchdowns (488; tied with Tom Brady) and sixth in quarterback rating (96.7).
And no matter when he ultimately hangs up his cleats, Brees' place in history is cemented.
"He'll go down as one of the top quarterbacks of all time," Lombardi said emphatically. "The results are there, the statistics are there."
Rankins, a self-confessed football junkie, agreed and said he continues to be amazed at what Brees can do with the ball in his hands.
"Practicing against him and watching how he looks guys off, how he predetermines things, how he knows how to get you to move just this way so he could fit the ball there," Rankins said. "Each day, he'll do something that will make me think, That's why he'll eventually have a gold jacket."
For now, however, Brees' bronze bust in Canton, Ohio, will need to wait.
And knowing what Brees recently said about his career, the Saints have their sights on winning it all for their beloved quarterback.
"I know if we get one this year -- I don't know -- we might need him back another year," Crawley said with a grin. "But, knowing that he said that, it just helped me push my game a little harder -- and other guys, also.
"That's what we want, that's our goal. I feel like we got there last year. We were close, so I think we get back to that point, we can go for a long run."