There are other factors. "Look, this team has won six games in two years," says Seau, Mr. Charger himself. "If this was corporate America, a lot of these people wouldn't have jobs after performances like that. We can't afford to be divided on anything."
Schottenheimer also detests controversy and has a long memory, citing a team-dividing battle that ensued when the Boston Patriots, for whom he was playing, acquired veteran Joe Kapp to unseat Mike Taliaferro in 1970. "Divided the team right down the middle," Schottenheimer says. "We will go to great lengths to avoid that here."
Schottenheimer has kept his promise to split practice time equally between Brees and Flutie (they alternate days with the first unit), creating a fascinating contrast of age and style. Flutie remains remarkably nimble. In scramble drills last week he darted away from traffic as if he were two decades younger and delivered searing sideline completions. "He's got a better arm than people realize," says Conway. "He can stick it in there." The off-season regimen that has preserved him so splendidly is a throwback: relentless basketball games, countless push-ups and sit-ups, and, only in recent years, weightlifting with very light weights. Eighteen years after his scrambling Heisman, Flutie is still one of the most elusive and creative quarterbacks ever to play the game. "We make a mistake, he gets out of trouble," says Chargers right tackle Vaughn Parker. "You've got to love that."
Despite tendon surgery in 1995, Flutie never ices his arm after practice; Brees does it every day, as a precaution. "I love getting out on the field and throwing," says Flutie. "I'd go to three practices a day if I could. The mental part—meetings, learning new material—is a chore now. "
Brees has played in only that one NFL game, yet he reads progressions like a five-year veteran. Says Schottenheimer, "I talked to Norv [Turner, Riley's offensive coordinator], and he said that Drew sees the entire field as well as anybody he's coached, and that includes Troy [Aikman]."
Adds Dwight, "Doug has a little bit more of a knack for making the quick decision on where to go with the ball, but that's experience. Drew is still so young, but the kid, I'm telling you, has an amazing learning curve."
Brees was drafted high because of his uncommon accuracy, and he has impressed even the Master of Improvisation himself with his inventiveness. During one recent scrimmage Flutie rolled right, away from pressure, and threw a rope on the run into the back of the end zone. One day later Brees made the same play. "Very instinctive," says Flutie. "There have been times when I was competing for a job and could do things that I knew the other guy couldn't do. This time that's not necessarily the case. Drew has a real feel for things out there."
Scrimmages are charged with intensity. That's not only because Schottenheimer is a taskmaster but also because every play is a piece of evidence in a quarterback competition that Schottenheimer is convinced will produce no decisive winner. When Flutie hummed a strike on a red-zone seam route to tight end Steve Heiden through a tiny hole in the secondary last Thursday, the customary practice crowd of about 500 spectators gasped and teammates whooped. They responded likewise five minutes later when Brees drilled Conway in the hands on a goal line out pattern in smothering coverage. Back and forth, back and forth.
"The plan was that somebody would earn the job and that it would be clear-cut," says Schottenheimer. "But they're too close. I can tell you right now, it's not going to be clear-cut. We're just going to have to make a decision and live with it. After that, he's the quarterback. Period." Schottenheimer has said only that Flutie, because he was last year's starter, will start the first exhibition game. Handicap-pers suggest that a curmudgeon such as Schottenheimer will defer to Flutie's experience, but the coach denies it. Schottenheimer is quick to point out that he elevated rookie Bernie Kosar to starter when he was coaching the Cleveland Browns in 1985. "I'll play the guy who gives us the best chance to win, now," says Schottenheimer. "We're not planning for the future—and don't read anything into that, either."
Each quarterback has reserved a small spot in his psyche to accommodate the possibility of losing the battle. "I came back to the NFL to experience winning a Super Bowl," says Flutie, who played with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots from 1986 through '89. "If that means Drew Brees pulls the trigger and I come off the bench to help us, so be it. I can live with that because I respect his work ethic." Brees says, "Obviously the guy who has more at stake is Doug. His time is more precious than mine. I want this job, but if I don't get it, I can tell myself I've got a lot more years."