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."
She also encouraged a brief escape last February, when they traveled through South Africa for three weeks. It was a crucial trip at a crucial time. "We just totally lost ourselves in the trip," Drew says. "We went on a safari, went wine-tasting, went to a rugby match, dived to see great white sharks in the Indian Ocean. I needed that break."
He also got a dose of perspective when they spent a day in an impoverished Port Elizabeth township. "It was hard to look at: kids on the street with no water, no food, no clothes," Brees says. "It was a slap in the face. After that, how could I not appreciate just having a chance to change things? It made my work easy."
It didn't matter that almost no one expected him to start again for San Diego, just as long as he still believed he would. With every month of work he felt his burden lifting. Even after San Diego acquired Philip Rivers in a draft-day trade with the Giants (page 65), he remained confident. Preparation was his salvation. So when Rivers missed the first 29 practices of training camp during a contract dispute, Brees's hard work paid off with a starting job he has refused to cede. "He showed tremendous resolve," Flutie says. "His career was on the line, and he prepared like it. And it's nice to have help."
Indeed, it's no coincidence that Brees's dominance has dovetailed with the rise of second-year tight end Antonio Gates, a budding star who never played college football. After arriving at Michigan State with the intention of playing basketball and football, the 6'4", 260pound Gates was offended by a suggestion from Nick Saban, then the Spartans' coach, that he drop basketball altogether. "He'd just come from the NFL, and he told me I was a guy the league would want," Gates says. "If I'd listened to him, I probably would've been a first-round pick. But I was a young kid with a rebellious streak."
So Gates left East Lansing, gave up football, and attended two more schools before landing at Kent State, where as a senior he was an honorable mention basketball AllAmerica and led the team to the Elite Eight. Still, a future in the NBA seemed unlikely. "When there are more NFL scouts at your games than NBA scouts," says Gates, "you get the message."
Gates was passed over in the NFL draft but was courted by several teams. He finally signed with the Chargers because "they were the only ones who told me the truth--that if I worked hard, I'd have a chance."
He has become one of Brees's favorite targets, catching five passes, three of them for touchdowns, against the Saints. A speedy, soft-handed receiver whose size makes him a mismatch for safeties and whose speed creates a mismatch for linebackers, Gates leads all NFL tight ends in catches (54), yards (602) and touchdowns (eight). "We've always had LT," says Brees, in a nod to LaDainian Tomlinson, his close friend and the team's leading rusher. "But now I have so many other options."
Indeed, as good as Brees has been, the Chargers' turnaround is a team affair. Brees got another weapon with San Diego's mid-October trade for former Tampa Bay wideout Keenan McCardell, who's caught 15 balls for 209 yards and a score in three games. All but one of the starters on the offensive line are new, and that unit has allowed only 12 sacks. The defense, revitalized under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his 3--4 scheme, is the NFL's second-ranked unit against the run. And just think: Tomlinson, last year's lone bright spot (1,645 rushing yards, 100 catches, 17 total touchdowns), has been nursing a groin injury and has yet to hit his stride.
No matter. Brees has become the team's unquestioned leader, and it's impossible to argue with the results: A career 59% passer, Brees has completed a gaudy 66.1% of his throws for 1,854 yards and 18 touchdowns (with only three interceptions). His 108.7 passer rating puts him in the league's top three. Not bad for a guy the Chargers didn't want--and probably won't have for much longer. Brees will be a free agent when the season ends, and the Chargers are unlikely to re-sign him, given their $40 million investment in Rivers.
But Brees demurs when asked about his future. He's still focused on the most important item on his wish list: a Super Bowl win. "But you know what was never on that list?" he asks. "Be the starting QB. Because I expected that. Even if no one else did."