SAN DIEGO -- A defining moment of Drew Brees' career occurred 12 years ago this week -- on the same field where Brees will lead the New Orleans Saints against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, on Sunday.
It was Week 4, Brees and the Chargers were struggling at 1-2 and tied 7-7 against the Tennessee Titans, and Brees had just suffered a Grade 2 AC separation in his non-throwing shoulder while being sacked. At that moment, San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer warned Brees that he had one more series to get going or he’d be replaced by rookie first-round draft pick Philip Rivers.
Former Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal remembers it well, because he came up to Brees on the sideline and gave him a demanding pep talk. Brees has always credited Neal for that talk -- it was Neal who dubbed Brees “PB” for “Pro Bowler” well before Brees earned his first of nine Pro Bowl selections.
“Drew was looking around, and you could tell he was kind of distraught, thinking, ‘When am I gonna get this together?’” said Neal, a four-time Pro Bowler himself, who began his 16-year career with the Saints in 1993.
“I walked up to him and I said, ‘Man, quit looking around.’ I said, ‘PB, lead. We trust you. Lead for God’s sake. Quit looking to your left, quit looking over your shoulder. We trust you,’” Neal recalled.
Brees finished that game with three touchdown passes, wound up leading the Chargers to the playoffs and won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
He didn’t relinquish his starting job until after the 2005 season, when he suffered a major shoulder injury in Week 17 and the Chargers let him bolt for the Saints in free agency. The rest, of course, is history. Brees later led the Saints to a Super Bowl and threw for more yards and touchdowns than any quarterback in any 10-year span in NFL history, from 2006 to 2015.
“I knew this guy had ‘it,’” said Neal, who said he was honored to find out his words meant so much to Brees. “At the time I didn’t think it was anything. Then years later this guy writes a book and he says that’s one of the defining moments of his career. So you hear someone say that, it just goes to show you that you do have a voice, and we are leaders. So I was just happy that I was able to inspire Drew. And hey, he just took off and began to fly.”
Future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson saw those same qualities in Brees, not only when they joined the Chargers together in the 2001 draft, but all the way back to when they played in a Texas high school all-star game together.
Even though Brees struggled from 2001 to 2003 and got benched three different times, Tomlinson said he always knew Brees had this potential.
“Drew always felt like he was a top quarterback. He always felt like he was the guy that they drafted him to be. So it was just a matter of time, I thought, and probably a lot of us thought, before he became a perennial Pro Bowler,” said Tomlinson, now an analyst for the NFL Network. “He had such strong character starting out in the beginning. Even when things didn’t go well, he never wavered. Obviously he wanted to play better, and he wanted things to go better … but his character never wavered.
“He continued to be the same guy, he continued to work hard, he continued to improve with every single practice. And you could clearly see that he was gonna be a franchise quarterback. We just didn’t have much around him (in those early years).”
Tomlinson said the two biggest hurdles for Brees were learning to adjust to defensive schemes and the speed of the NFL game -- and learning to just "play his game."
“I just remember Drew wanted to please everyone,” Tomlinson said. “He was trying to do too much, he was trying to play the quarterback position the way (coaches) wanted him to play on paper. And we had a talk, and I just said, ‘Drew, you gotta play your game. You’re the quarterback, you gotta play the way you’ve always played. Don’t be robotic.’
“It really seemed like at that point he just let it all go. He stopped trying to be perfect, he stopped trying to please everybody on the coaching staff and in the media.”
Neal said there were some guys on the team in 2004 who were curious what “the young guy (Rivers) could do.” But he said “it was universal that guys were behind Drew. He made you want to get behind him.”
And by the end of the 2005 season, Tomlinson said he and many others were upset the Chargers let Brees walk in free agency.
Tomlinson told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen this week that he believes San Diego would have won a Super Bowl in 2006 if it had kept Brees.
“He had clearly shown that he was the leader of our team at that time, and he had come into his own,” Tomlinson said. “At that point we actually thought there was a chance that Drew would stay and they would trade Philip Rivers. But then the injury happened, obviously in that last game, and that made the decision for the Chargers a lot easier.”
Tomlinson went on to win the NFL MVP award in 2006, setting an all-time touchdown record while San Diego went 14-2. Brees finished a distant runner-up while leading the Saints to the NFC Championship Game.
Surprisingly, Brees still has not won a league MVP award. When asked if he feels guilty for blocking Brees’ path, Tomlinson laughed.
“Yeah, I kinda do, because I felt like we probably should’ve been co-MVPs,” Tomlinson said. “And it would’ve been fitting, two guys that came out of high school together from Texas, played in an all-star game together, were friends over our whole college career, then ended up getting drafted by the same team.
“I remember when we first got to San Diego, we both landed at the airport, we made a pact to each other that we would turn that organization around.”