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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Brees vs. Rivers: Chargers still made right choice

Source: SD Tribune

Drew Brees now is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and while we can try pointing more fingers than a school of squid as to the why of it — the reason he accomplished this as a Saint and not as a Charger — in the end they all aim at one person: Drew Brees.

Nothing personal. When it mattered, when the team thought he had a chance to be The Guy, he wasn’t nearly good enough. There is no other reason — other than Drew Brees.

Passionate fans love to put themselves in the Hawaiian shirts occupied by General Manager A.J. Smith, so let’s play that game. Let’s play Smith — and Marty Schottenheimer, coach at the time — and be totally honest, rational and unemotional about the entire process that led to Brees being the star in New Orleans’ stunning Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis.

It’s so simple, even I get it.

The NFL is a production-based, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Remember that from the start. It’s hard — especially for quarterbacks.

Anyway, in 2001, then-Chargers GM John Butler drafted Brees out of Purdue with his first choice in the second round. Brees played in 16 games in 2002 and was all right — the team went 8-8 — but instead of improving, he regressed. Badly.

In 2003, he started 11 games, benched for five games at midseason in favor of 39-year-old Doug Flutie. San Diego’s record under Brees was 2-9. He passed for 2,108 yards. His completion percentage was 57.6. He threw 11 touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. His passer rating was 67.5. To be kind, he stunk.

As a result, the Chargers were the worst team in football and therefore had the No. 1 pick in a 2004 draft featuring three promising quarterbacks — Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. What were the Chargers to do, gamble Brees would snap out of it and eventually take them to Super Bowls?

As Smith has told me more than once: “We had to draft a quarterback.” Absolutely. Positively. Brees’ performance — getting beat out by a short 39-year-old? — made it so.

We won’t get into the entire Eli Manning thing here, but Schottenheimer and his staff coached at the Senior Bowl in 2004, and their quarterback was Rivers. Schottenheimer fell in love with the kid out of North Carolina State.

This also was a time when A.J. and Marty actually were communicating, so when the draft came around and Manning cried that he didn’t want to play in San Diego, Rivers eventually became the choice.

No way anyone without a halo could have predicted what happened next.

Schottenheimer may not admit it now; the plan was to start Rivers his rookie year. But Rivers reported late to training camp, death for quarterbacks, and Brees did well enough in August to keep the starting job.

And then, for whatever reason — he’s always been a great competitor, so maybe his getting pushed pushed him — Brees excelled in 2004. The team went 12-4 and made the playoffs, losing the memorable game to the Jets. Brees became a Pro Bowler, throwing 27 touchdowns against seven picks.

Meanwhile, Rivers, who had signed for $40 million-plus, sat. The Chargers put a franchise tag on free agent Brees and he had another fine season in 2005, although his team wasn’t as good, finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs. But, in the final game of the regular season against Denver (why was he playing?), Brees dove after a fumble, tearing up his throwing shoulder.

Famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews obviously did an amazing job on that shoulder, but there was no way the Chargers — who had Rivers in waiting — or any other team (or Brees for that matter) could predict the future.

San Diego offered him $2 million guaranteed — with makable incentives that would take it to $9 million if he played — and only one other team made Brees an offer, New Orleans. The Saints chummed him a one-year guarantee of $9.5 million, with future options if he remained healthy and played.

Did Brees want any part of New Orleans? Some people think he didn’t. But his future was in doubt and he was offered nearly $10 million. He says it was a “calling” now. But he went for the dough.

The huge monetary gamble worked for New Orleans. The Chargers got Rivers, their own Pro Bowl quarterback, out of it, but he hasn’t won a Super Bowl. Now Brees has, and people are screaming that, once again, the Chargers have blown it.

Smith blew it in one regard. After Brees’ Pro Bowl 2004 season, he never was going to be worth more to other teams. Smith knew Rivers was the quarterback of the future. Teams were dying for quarterbacks. Brees should have been traded then.

Instead, he was allowed to walk after the injury, and with the 2006 third-round pick San Diego got in compensation from the Saints, Smith took linebacker Anthony Waters. He’s not here anymore.

If you want to gripe, gripe about that. If the Chargers thought Brees would become what he’s become, they certainly wouldn’t have drafted a quarterback. Common sense.

Those are the facts. Feel free to tweak them. I’m sure some of you will.