I am shocked at the number of people that have contacted me asking how the Chargers could have let Drew Brees go. It was not a bad decision. It was not a dumb decision. While the most staunch Drew Brees fans will say that the Chargers shouldn't have drafted Philip Rivers when they did — I humbly disagree — those same fans will agree that the team made the right move in letting Drew Brees go to New Orleans after the 2005 season. I'm going to explain why.
I have told this story so many times that you would think I was doing Brees' biography at this point. However, there are a few people that somehow have managed to not hear it — or they just want to write their own version of history — and I feel like it's my duty to let them know that the Chargers did not make some catastrophic mistake by letting Drew go.
In the last game of the 2005 season, Drew Brees should not have been playing, yet he was. The team was 9-6, but had no shot of making the playoffs by time the game started. However, A.J. Smith and Marty Schottenheimer had already started a war that would eventually lead to Marty's departure from San Diego, and a big part of that war was at the Quarterback position.
In his rookie season, Philip Rivers — though he was seen as the future franchise QB — was named the third QB on the Chargers roster behind Doug Flutie. It was seen as punishment for Rivers holding out and missing part of Training Camp. At the end of the season, in a game that was meaningless because the Chargers had already locked up their spot in the postseason, the coach decided to start Flutie (the veteran with loads of experience) over Rivers (the kid who was desperate for experience). It was becoming obvious that Marty not only didn't want to give in to his GM — who was pushing for Rivers as the future, even as Brees was succeeding — but he also did not want the fans to get excited about the 6'5" country–boy with a laser arm that was sitting on the bench. He finally relented in the second half, and the rookie went 5-for-8 and threw a TD to unknown rookie–WR Malcom Floyd.
The following year, Rivers moved up the depth chart to backup QB and was seen as such by the Head Coach. To Marty, this was not a young QB that was going to get snaps and eventually take over the reigns. Brees was his guy and he'd be damned if he was going to let the GM thrust the young QB into the lineup. Marty's stubbornness was never more evident then in Week 17 of the 2005 season.
The Chargers were in a situation similar to the one they were one year prior. The last game of the regular season was completely meaningless to them. However, this time it was meaningless because their 9-6 record had made them the odd-team-out heading into the playoffs. They would be watching postseason football at home, and all that was left to do was give the rookie QB his first start so that he could get a few snaps under his belt. Right? Wrong. Marty was not going to give Philip a chance to come out and look great against the AFC West Champion Broncos because Denver had very little to play for. Instead, Schottenheimer made possibly the most stubborn move of his career and decided to start Drew Brees in a meaningless game so that the fans couldn't fawn over their young, prototype QB.
It was this silly move that led us up to the crossroads of this story. Standing on his own goal-line in the first half, Drew Brees was sacked by a blitzing John Lynch. He fumbled the ball when he was hit, and when he dove back on top of it he was crushed by Gerard Warren in a way that made your shoulder hurt just watching it. Brees left the game in obvious pain and handed the team over to Philip Rivers.
The story doesn't end here, but we need to pause to analyze. Is there any other coach in the league that would put his starting QB, who had made the Pro Bowl (as an alternate) in 2005 by the way, out there in a meaningless game against a division rival? Of course not. Especially not when there was a young kid on the sidelines that was chomping at the bit to get on the field. This was a entirely selfish act by Marty Schottenheimer and it nearly cost Drew Brees his career.
Making the act more selfish was that this Pro Bowl QB was playing the last game of his rookie contract. If he doesn't play that game, he is assured a long-term, big-money contract in San Diego (they would've traded Rivers) or elsewhere. He would've finally become the cornerstone of a franchise and no longer would've had to worry about losing his starting spot after a bad game. In a nutshell: his life and career are set if he does not play that game. Yet there he was, lying on the field crying out in pain because of a petty fight between two grown men that were using these athletes like toys in their silly game. His career is maybe over because he respected his coach enough to not say no when he knew he probably should've.
Marty lost nothing when Brees went down. He moved on to the young QB and arguably had his best season as a head coach (in the regular season, anyways). Marty risked nothing by putting Brees in there. He did it to try to make a point to the GM and the fans, and all he did was make himself look like a stubborn old fool.
Now we're going to get into the severity of Brees' shoulder injury. Any injury to the throwing arm/shoulder of an NFL QB is going to have teams worried. This was a poorly-timed injury (right after Chad Pennington's career starting spiraling downwards after a shoulder injury) to a free agent QB that wanted to be guaranteed a starting spot and starter's money. Oh, and it wasn't just any old shoulder injury (emphasis is mine):
More than 1,700 miles away in Birmingham, renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews watched a replay of Brees going down. "I thought, my God, what an injury," says Andrews. Four days later he examined Brees and diagnosed a rare 360-degree tear of the labrum, the ring of cartilage around the entry to the shoulder joint. During surgery Andrews discovered a deep, partial rotator cuff tear. He says the damage in Brees's shoulder joint represented "one of the most unique injuries of any athlete I've ever treated."
Andrews and two other surgeons mended the labrum with the unheard-of total of 11 surgical anchors (three or four is common) and also repaired the rotator cuff. The 90-minute procedure was performed arthroscopically--a godsend for Brees. If the doctors had had to cut through shoulder tissue, his recovery would have been prolonged by months.
Still, Brees faced an arduous rehabilitation, with long odds. "Lord, I was just hoping to give him a functional shoulder," says Andrews. "An average athlete would not recover from this injury."
James Andrew handed Brees off to Kevin Wilk, a physical therapist and clinical director at Benchmark-Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham who has been rehabbing Andrew's patients for 18 years. "Dr. Andrews told me, 'You've got your work cut out for you,'" Wilk says. "I had never seen an injury this severe in any elite-level throwing athlete. We were in uncharted waters."
So now you're starting to see what A.J. Smith was seeing. Contrary to what some people may think, this was not a decision that was made simply because Smith wanted to bring in "his guy". The Chargers GM did his due diligence, checking with specialists (including Dr. Andrew himself) to see what the future could hold for Drew. While some doctors were very optimistic about his chances of regaining his full strength in the shoulder, many of the doctors Smith talked to gave Brees about a 25% chance of regaining full strength (which he needed, since he didn't have a lot of arm strength to spare).
Knowing that he was already paying Rivers starters' money, and with the knowledge that Brees may never again be able to be a starter in the NFL, A.J. Smith did what anybody would do. He offered Brees an incentive-laden contract that only offered about $2 million guaranteed per season (backup QB money) and told him that Philip Rivers would be back too. Basically, Smith took one look at Brees' shoulder and decided to not put all of his eggs in that one (injured) basket.
Obviously, I am not insider and wasn't even a blogger at the time this happened. I don't know exact specifics, but what is known is that Brees was offered contracts by only three teams: the Chargers, the Dolphins and the Saints. The Dolphins were coming off of a 9-7 season and were looking to upgrade from Gus Frerotte. Their coach, Nick Saban, had just finished coaching his first season and was looking like the genius he was expected to be. The Saints were coming off of a 3-13 season (that included dealing with Hurricane Katrina) and had just signed first-time Head Coach Sean Payton (and they were not Coach Payton's first choice).
Number one on Brees' priorities was being a starter. He did not want to be signed as a backup somewhere, because he was worried he'd never get a chance. Miami would not guarantee him the starter's spot, and (supposedly) barely offered him more money than the Chargers did. It seemed the Dolphins strategy for the 2006 season was to sign a bunch of these risk players that had/have potential and see who emerges. Their starters for the season ended up being Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper and Cleo Lemon.
Supposedly, the New Orleans Saints offered the same contract the Dolphins did. It was still not starter's money, but new coach Sean Payton was willing to guarantee Brees the starting spot if the QB could get healthy in time for Training Camp. All it took for Brees was one trip to the devastated city to see that, if he were to regain his past form, he could make a big difference in building this city back up to it's previous heights. He decided to sign with the Saints, got himself healthy by Training Camp and the rest is history. He led that Saints team to a 10-6 record in his first year, and led them to their first Super Bowl in his fourth year.
Do you get it now? Can I finally stop telling this story over and over? The Dolphins and Saints, both desperate for QBs, essentially offered Drew Brees (a Pro Bowler the season before) backup QB money. That's how risky his shoulder was. The Chargers were lucky enough to already have a backup plan in place, so that when he turned down their (very fair) offer the franchise was not hurt.
A.J. Smith deserves no criticism for Brees being in New Orleans. If you want to criticize, you should blame the stubborn coach who had Drew in the game for selfish reasons. A.J. Smith and the Chargers deserve credit for having a backup plan just in case Brees were to get injured or leave at the end of his contract (or do both). It was not a mistake, it was a success.
Luckily for Drew and anyone with a heart, it was a success for everyone involved. Philip Rivers got his chance to shine and has become one of the league's best QBs. Pairing him with Norv Turner is almost as good of a match as pairing Drew Brees with Sean Payton. The city of San Diego continues to watch their team have success and play postseason football annually, and the city of New Orleans got to forget about their troubles for a few weeks while the Saints took them on a ride to the Championship.