- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Drew Brees entered the season with his football future in doubt. He tore the labrum in his right shoulder in San Diego’s season finale on New Year’s Eve last season. His contract was expiring and the Chargers had Philip Rivers, the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, ready to take over at quarterback.

“When I hurt my throwing shoulder, I’m thinking, ‘This is the absolute worst thing that ever could have happened besides me breaking my neck,’ ‘ Brees said. “Then I’m thinking, ‘I might never put a Chargers uniform on again. I might not play football again.’ ‘

As this season nears its end, Brees’ world has totally changed. Spurned by Miami and other teams looking for a quarterback, Brees signed in March with the New Orleans Saints, a franchise looking for hope after Hurricane Katrina and the homeless 3-13 season that followed.

Thirteen games later, Brees is having one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history while leading the 9-4 Saints to the verge of their third division title in their 40 seasons as a franchise.

“I’m absolutely a better quarterback than I was two years ago,” Brees said of the season when he made the Pro Bowl after throwing 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while leading the Chargers to their first AFC West title in 10 years. “I’ve continued to pick up different workout techniques and diet ideas to make myself the best I can be physically. Knowing the game, studying the game, I prepare much more efficiently than I ever had.”

Brees leads the NFL with 25 touchdown passes and a 101.2 passer rating. His league-leading 4,033 yards through 13 games are the second-most in NFL history and his 510 yards against Cincinnati on Nov. 12 were the fifth-most ever. Brees currently is on pace to throw for 4,964 yards, 120 behind Hall of Famer Dan Marino’s record.

“Drew Brees is playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL,” said Washington Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, whose unit faces Brees tomorrow for the second time in 13 months. “He’s doing a very good job of operating their offense. He has a commanding presence. He lets his [receivers] do their jobs. He gets the ball out of his hand in a hurry. When you have a quarterback functioning at that level, it takes a lot of pressure off the coaching staff, I guarantee you that.”

First-year Saints coach Sean Payton certainly is thrilled that his gamble on replacing former starter Aaron Brooks with Brees came up aces.

“You knew Drew was going to be diligent,” Payton said. “He was going to work hard and he was going to do everything the doctors told him to do, so the investment and the risk probably was as much in the person as it was the player.”

Brees isn’t the typical franchise quarterback. He graduated from Purdue with a 3.4 grade-point average in industrial management and manufacturing. He’s one of three quarterbacks to serve as a player representative. And he’s just 6 feet tall, a major reason he wasn’t a first-round pick in the 2001 draft.

“Unlike a lot of quarterbacks, Drew’s a blue-collar guy,” said Redskins safety Troy Vincent, president of the NFL Players Association. “I’m sure that everyone always told him that he was a little undersized, all these things that he wouldn’t accomplish. But Drew is a very accurate thrower. He understands where the ball needs to go. He just has a presence about him. And he wanted to prove the naysayers wrong again.”

Including those in San Diego.

“When Philip was behind me in San Diego, I kind of felt like the Chargers were waiting for something bad to happen, some excuse to put him in,” Brees said. “I feel a big responsibility to the New Orleans Saints. They gave me an opportunity, which a lot of people didn’t want to when all I could show them was a DVD of me exercising four weeks after the surgery. The confidence they had in me equaled the confidence I had in myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back and be better than I was before the injury.”

Brees began throwing in April, a month ahead of schedule. Payton stopped limiting his daily throws during the second week of training camp. Not only has the shoulder — repaired by surgeon James Andrews — suffered no setbacks, it has continued to gain strength.

“I think this all happened for a reason,” Brees said. “I think I’m in New Orleans for a reason. I take great pleasure in the season we’re having. There were a lot of people who didn’t think we could do much. I like to think that destiny and fate have something to do with it. We’re playing for more than ourselves.”

And if destiny really is at work, Brees and the Saints could be fated to meet the AFC-leading Chargers in Miami for Super Bowl XLI.

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