future was not unfolding as favorably. The Chargers, who'd put a franchise tag
on him for 2005 and paid him $8.1 million, offered him an incentive-laden deal
for '06 with only $2 million guaranteed. Brees saw this as general manager A.J.
Smith's attempt to run him off and finally play Philip Rivers, whom Smith had
acquired in the shrewd Eli Manning trade on draft day 2004. "They didn't
think I could come back," says Brees, "and the injury was their excuse
to get rid of me."
"People say the offer was an insult. I don't care what people think. If
[Brees] wanted to come back, he would have accepted the offer."
desperately to return to San Diego. "I was supposed to be the guy to take
that team to the next step," he says. "But then I started thinking, How
can I go back when that's what they think of me?"
He declared himself
a free agent, and his first visit was to New Orleans. The Saints were a
football team in transition, coming off a 3--13 season in which they'd played
"home" games in New Jersey, San Antonio and Baton Rouge. There was also
a new coach, 43-year-old former Dallas Cowboys assistant Sean Payton, and a
roster that would ultimately include 27 new players. Payton and general manager
Mickey Loomis knew all about Brees's shoulder. "The injury was the only
reason we had an opportunity to sign him," says Payton.
They drove Brees
through the city in March and gave him the pitch: You can be part of the
rebuilding. Greg Bensel, the Saints' vice president of communications, then
took the Breeses on a real estate tour that included the areas most devastated
by Katrina. They did not flinch; instead, they embraced the possibilities.
"I'm very faith-driven in my life," says Brees. "At some point in
the process I started to believe that maybe God put me in this position for a
reason. Maybe we were supposed to come to New Orleans and do more than just
In fairness, the
difficulties presented by the city and the team were offset by a one-year offer
of $10 million guaranteed (with options for $50 million more over four
additional years). As competition Brees had only the Chargers' bid and a
shrinking offer from the Dolphins, who told Brees's agent, Tom Condon, that
they felt he had only a 25% chance of playing effectively again. ( Miami soon
turned its attention to Daunte Culpepper.) On March 14, Brees signed with the
Saints. "They needed me and they wanted me," says Brees. "And how
many people in life get an opportunity like this, to really make a
There were some
hiccups. Although Payton kept Brees on a tight pitch count early in training
camp, on the second day his arm was tired. He threw a wounded quail to wideout
Joe Horn that dipped after a few yards and Payton said, hopefully, "Use
your legs a little more." Brees recalls, "I know what he was thinking:
This guy's arm is not going to be ready." On Aug. 28 the Saints traded
wideout Donte' Stallworth to the Eagles, leaving Brees with a receiving corps
that, after Horn, was woefully short on experience. His targets would include
Devery Henderson (22 career receptions entering '06), Terrance Copper (eight
career receptions) and Marques Colston, a seventh-round rookie out of Hofstra.
But Brees has adjusted: Bush led the team in the regular season with 88
catches, and the three newbies combined for 125, led by Colston's 70. Brees has
been a solid fit for Payton's West Coast--based system, with its heavy diet of
half rollouts and bootlegs.
"We had a whole
new offensive line, a rookie split end, other guys with little experience,"
says Payton. "That's a lot of new pieces to the puzzle, and Drew has been
the guy to bring them all together."
Inside the locker
room, Brees was an even sweeter fit. "I called [ Chargers fullback] Lorenzo
Neal to get the word on Drew," says Horn, who missed Saturday's playoff win
with a groin injury. "He said great things about him. And he's been a great
leader from Day One."
Brees's work ethic
remains his mainstay. One example: He finishes every day by watching practice
film. Eight days before the playoff win, Brees flipped on the lights in an
offensive meeting room at the team's practice facility in suburban Metairie and
spent 30 minutes running through the day's workout. Before each snap he softly
spoke the formation and play he was about to run, a habit he learned under San
Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. At the end, he snatched up his
messenger bag and walked to the parking lot, sated. "If this is the last
thing I do every day," he said, "I feel like I've accomplished
something positive, even if it wasn't a great day otherwise."