- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

Looking for a team to implode next season? Look no further than San Diego.

After following up their surprising 2004 AFC West title with an 8-4 record through Dec.10 last season, the Chargers lost three of their last four games and missed the playoffs. And now, despite the objections of coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Chargers let former Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees walk away and turned the offense over to untested Philip Rivers.

Schottenheimer said publicly he wanted the 27-year-old Brees back, much to the dismay of general manager A.J. Smith.. Owner Alex Spanos has said he expects the Chargers, who are 0-2 in the postseason since reaching the Super Bowl in 1994, to make a serious playoff run.

But Schottenheimer, who is 5-12 in the playoffs, knows that’s much easier said than done with a talented yet unproven quarterback. Rivers has thrown just 30 passes since being taken fourth overall in 2004 by the New York Giants, who traded him to San Diego.

“My only thought is, ‘Are we still going to win?’ ” said Chargers All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. “I love Drew, but I can’t let my feelings get involved.”

Neither did the Chargers. Wary about Brees’ rotator cuff surgery in January, they offered a contract potentially worth $50 million over six years — but it was really a one-year deal with a five-year option and included just $2 million in guaranteed money. Brees would have received another $8 million if he had taken 75 percent of the snaps next season. This came from a team that was more than $20 million under the salary cap.

But New Orleans offered $10 million up front and the potential of another $12 million next March. And Brees, who threw 51 touchdowns and just 22 interceptions the past two years, was the new face of the Saints.

“Crazy things happen,” Brees said. “This is all going to be a huge positive for me. I made up my mind that what was going to be the determining factor in choosing a team is, who truly believed I was going to come back and be a great player and lead their team and go win a championship? That was the New Orleans Saints. … When you have these rough times [in the wake of Hurricane Katrina], you need something to lean on. In New Orleans, that’s the Saints. To know that maybe you can be a part of helping lift the spirits of many people in that city and rebuild that city, there’s something to be said for that.”

Schottenheimer said the Chargers have “a good supporting cast” around Rivers, who’s excited to finally get an opportunity.

“I’m just going to be myself and use this offseason to earn the respect and trust of my teammates,” Rivers said. “I hoped to be a starter in the NFL this year, and I hoped it was here. I’m going to make sure I do what it takes to get it done.”

Rivers might turn out to be special, but San Diego should have figured a way to get something in return for Brees, as Minnesota did for disgruntled quarterback Daunte Culpepper. If the Chargers implode, Smith’s job should be on the line more than Schottenheimer’s. And if Brees plays as well for the Saints as he did for the Chargers, they might have to change the name of the signature drink at Pat O’Brien’s from a Hurricane to a Bree(s)e.

Welcome home — It’s not that unusual for a free agent to sign with his hometown team, but new Dallas linebacker Akin Ayodele’s homecoming has a special twist. Ayodele is a former Cowboys ball boy. So the 26-year-old Irving, Texas, native has gone from picking up the towels at Valley Ranch to tossing them.

“My mom is excited — she’s like a little kid right now,” said Ayodele, who signed a five-year, $17 million contract that included a $5 million bonus.

Ayodele started 46 games during his four seasons in Jacksonville, recording a career high 115 tackles in 2003. He forced four fumbles last season to help the Jaguars reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Now he’ll join veteran holdover Al Singleton and group of young players — Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware, Kevin Burnett and Scott Shanle — in a revamped Dallas linebacking corps that lost Dat Nguyen to retirement and Scott Fujita to New Orleans.

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