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Tours after San Diego's 42--14 rout of visiting Oakland on Halloween, Chargers quarterback Drew Brees sat in a private dining room of a restaurant, surrounded by family and friends chattering over platters of chicken wings and crab cakes, burgers and fries. As they talked, Brees watched a nearby television screen, on which Chicago rookie quarterback Craig Krenzel was leading the Bears to victory over San Francisco. Brees turned to his father, Chip, and asked, "Did you ever think the Bears believed that Craig Krenzel would be their quarterback right now?" Chip just smiled, leaving his son's question, so loaded with irony, unanswered.
Did you ever think.... Is there a better motto for this unpredictable NFL season? Did you ever think that so many teams--the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons--would so far surpass their modest expectations? Did you ever think that 12 teams would be on pace to better their '03 win totals--or that, at the season's midway point, four teams would already have done so? And really, did you ever think that arguably the worst team of a year ago, the hapless 4--12 Chargers, would be celebrating such an eye-popping reversal of fortune, with a player who has traded goat horns for gold stars (and possible MVP consideration)?
That once absurd scenario grows more plausible by the week, especially after Brees's performance in Sunday's 43--17 blowout of visiting New Orleans. Running the offense as though it were a passing drill, Brees toyed with the Saints' overmatched secondary, completing 22 of 36 throws for 257 yards and four scores and becoming the first Chargers quarterback since Dan Fouts in 1985 to lead San Diego to consecutive games of 40-plus points. In his last six starts Brees has thrown 15 touchdown passes (nine in the last two) and just one interception, keeping the Chargers (6--3) tied with Denver atop the AFC West.
That stands in stark contrast to the 2003 season, a disaster laid squarely at the feet of the ineffective Brees, who completed just 57.6% of his passes, threw for only 191.6 yards per game, had more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (11) and was benched for five games following the team's 1--7 start. "I just felt helpless," he says. "I mean, it was hard on everyone, but I was very, very disappointed. Nothing ever felt right. We lost our first two games; then all of a sudden we were 0--5. Then people started pointing fingers, and the wheels just fell off the bus. I started pressing, trying to win each game on every play."
It was during his benching that Brees first heard the rumors that San Diego would replace him come the April draft. Those rumors were confirmed at the NFL scouting combine last February, when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said, "We're not flying under the radar with this. We're looking for a quarterback. [Brees is] a big boy. He can handle [it]."
"It was devastating," Brees says. "I was angry. No one wants to hear that he's not wanted. But once I got past it, I knew I could only worry about things in my control."
Brees had already composed a detailed wish list in late January, enumerating the changes he thought necessary in his weight training, his film study, his mental preparation. At the Chargers' practice facility he became more efficient with his time, even as he invested more of it than his teammates did. "I accepted I had to do much more than ever before," Brees says. "I'd check things off that list and look up at the clock, and suddenly the sun was down. But every day it got easier."
"We're expected to be around two to 21/2 hours a day during the off-season," Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards says. "Drew was here six, seven hours every day. Overcoming adversity is one thing. But to work that hard, not knowing if it'd be enough, that was awesome."
"He had that inner fire," says Chargers backup quarterback Doug Flutie. "He'd watch film, but it wasn't just to learn the offense. He'd study each lineman's assignments on run plays. He'd study receivers' splits. He'd study defenses--not just schemes, but philosophies. He was all business. Someone asked me if I ever saw him smile during all of it, and aside from the QB meetings, I'd have to say no."
Through it all, Brees's golf clubs gathered dust; his lazy days with his wife, Brittany, grew infrequent. When Brees felt tired or frustrated, he'd contemplate this ugly truth--my own team is done with me--and go back to work. But he never let his bitterness get the best of him. "Brittany and I talked a lot about the need for patience and calm," Brees says. "She's a brilliant, witty person, and she gave me balance. She felt the pain with me."