Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/writers/nunyo_demasio/03/01/chargers.qbs/index.html">SI.com</a>
By Nunyo Demasio
<img width="209" height="271" align="left" title="Drew Brees" alt="Drew Brees" src="http://www.bolttalk.com/images/brees07.jpg" />The San Diego Chargers are on the verge of making a decision that will bring the franchise closer to its dark days, which weren't that long ago. It's been lost amid the hullabaloo of Wonderlic-gate and the uncertainty of the NFL's labor situation.
With free agency starting on Monday, San Diego has turned an enviable situation of being stacked at the quarterback position -- with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers -- into a nightmare scenario: likely allowing Brees -- one of the NFL's top quarterbacks -- to depart without obtaining even a practice-squad player.
As recently as 2004, the Chargers had been such a laughingstock that Eli Manning forced a trade (bringing Rivers) after being drafted first overall. Now, the quarterback who spearheaded the remarkable turnaround is being treated like an afterthought.
Brees will likely become a free agent because general manager A.J. Smith is only willing to offer a contract of mostly incentives to a quarterback who tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder during the Chargers' regular-season finale. But Smith's inflexible stance is flabbergasting for a club that's a Super Bowl contender -- with Brees.
Excluding wideout Keenan McCardell, the nucleus of San Diego's potent offense, is entering its prime. The Chargers, who barely missed the playoffs after finishing 9-7 last season despite an arduous schedule, are attempting to drum up support for a new stadium. Unless Brees' right arm has fallen off, now's not the time to rely on a quarterback (Rivers) who has thrown just 30 passes in two seasons.
The right move would have been to give Brees at least a one-year deal via the franchise or transition tag. In this scenario, if Brees didn't return to form, the Chargers could have turned to Rivers. But San Diego allowed the Feb. 23 deadline to pass because Brees would have earned roughly $10 million in guarantees for one season.
It's not as if the Chargers are in salary-cap hell, forcing a roster purge. San Diego is reportedly more than $20 million under the current cap, and could easily keep both quarterbacks again.
The option I would have taken would be to sign Brees to a long-term contract and trade Rivers while he has value to bolster the offensive line and secondary. If that's too risky for Smith's taste, the Chargers should have at least dealt Brees to help fill some holes.
The club has sent whispers around the league that Brees' injury is worse than he is letting on. The quarterback insists he's four weeks ahead of schedule. But I'm siding with the orthopedists who have publicly declared that Brees's shoulder will be stronger when he fully recovers. (In the past, Phil Simms and Rich Gannon suffered similar injuries before returning to form.) The only question seems to be when Brees -- a 27-year-old with a strong work ethic -- regains his arm strength. Brees is expected begin throwing in May, which is three months before training camp.
With several teams looking for a quarterback, Brees will receive substantial guaranteed money, even if there's not a new CBA. I was convinced of this last week at the combine while listening to Dolphins coach Nick Saban being interviewed on the NFL Network. Saban is known for Karl Rove-like secrecy in disseminating pertinent information. But Saban surprised me with his uncharacteristic candor about Miami's interest in Brees.
(That reminds me, new Jets coach Eric Mangini is already one of the NFL's most tight-lipped coaches. On Sunday, I sat across the aisle from him on the plane ride home. He was conspicuous in his Jets jacket while reading the New York Times Book Review. My kind of head coach, except for the team gear in public. After a bumpy descent, we joked about how the pilot must have been on his first flight. But Mangini quickly turned reticent after I revealed my job, making a convenient trip to the men's room with a polite goodbye. It wasn't enough time to get the view from a coach whose starting quarterback, unlike Brees, tore his rotator cuff.)
Anyway, Smith is against giving a guaranteed contract to a quarterback whose future is uncertain. But the odds are 50-50 that a first-round quarterback becomes a star. That didn't prevent the Chargers from signing Rivers to a $40.5 million contract. Playing sparingly over two seasons, Rivers has earned more than $14 million. The North Carolina State product threw for 13,484 yards -- the second-best total in NCAA history at the time. If things pan out, Rivers might turn out to be the next, well, Drew Brees. The Chargers should know better than anyone that for every Peyton Manning, there's a Ryan Leaf.
Last season, Brees amassed a career-high 3,576 yards during a down year. Beyond the numbers, Brees -- 21-11 as a starter -- brings intangibles such as moxie and fortitude that make him the leader on a team with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. Brees' departure will divide a club whose GM and coach aren't exactly bosom buddies.
Check out these recent remarks by Marty Schottenheimer to the San Diego Union-Tribune: "I think it's important that there's always communication between the coach and general manager. I've sought to see that realized. But quite frankly, there hasn't been as much as I would like."
In three seasons with Smith as GM, the Chargers are 25-24. The former long-time scout deserves praise for several smart moves like drafting linebacker Shawne Merriman last year, while creating financial flexibility. But Smith is a winning GM largely because of Brees' development.
I have a feeling that Smith is one of these NFL GMs, who like some corporate bosses, get attached to their guys. Smith inherited Brees after becoming GM in 2003. After trading for Rivers, Smith declared him the quarterback of the future before the 2004 season.
But late that season, with Brees on his way to a banner season, Smith said: "I can't tell [owner] Dean Spanos we have an unrestricted quarterback who's playing great and he's leaving. That's not sound football."
Smith should return to that mindset before his franchise turns back the clock. Regardless of Brees' injury, allowing him to leave is anything but sound football.