Drew Brees was nearly the Dolphins' saint

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The biggest decision made about a player during the construction of the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl team wasn't made by their coach, Sean Payton, or their general manager, Mickey Loomis. In fact, it wasn't made by the Saints at all. It was made by the Miami Dolphins and the man who coached them in 2005, Nick Saban.

When Brees left the San Diego Chargers as a free agent following the 2005 season, he nearly ended up in Miami. But Saban and the Dolphins, wary of the condition of Brees's surgically repaired right shoulder, decided to trade for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper instead, and that ill-fated choice changed the landscape of both professional and college football.

Culpepper couldn't stay healthy in Miami and never was the quarterback for the Dolphins that he had been for the Vikings, and Saban left the NFL after failing to produce a contending team. He returned to the college ranks at the University of Alabama and restored that program to elite status, winning a national championship last month.

Brees was left with little choice but to sign with the Saints, and has become the centerpiece of a team that will make its first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history Sunday. It will come against the Indianapolis Colts on the home field of the Dolphins, who remain without a franchise quarterback four seasons after passing on Brees.

"It obviously changed a lot of things," former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said this week. "It certainly changed Alabama, with the success that Saban has had there. If that had gone the right way for the Dolphins, that could have made a big difference for him in Miami and whether he was successful and stayed there for a long time. It changed the Saints, and you see what the success of that team has meant to both the franchise and the city."

At the time, the choice between Brees and Culpepper wasn't as clear-cut as it appears in hindsight. Brees had been a very good quarterback in his final two seasons in San Diego, totaling 6,735 passing yards and 51 touchdown passes in those two seasons. But the Chargers had made the decision to go with 2004 first-round draft choice Philip Rivers and allowed Brees to exit as an unrestricted free agent. Brees's situation was complicated by the fact that he'd suffered a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder in his final game with the Chargers, an injury that required surgery by orthopedist James Andrews.

"After I got hurt, I fully expected San Diego to sign me back," Brees said. "I told them I was going to come back stronger than ever. But that was a tough ordeal. It was a dramatic shoulder injury. Everything has worked out the way it was supposed to."

Culpepper, too, was coming off a significant injury at the time, a knee injury that had limited him to seven games with the Vikings in the 2005 season. But he had been highly productive in Minnesota when healthy, throwing for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns for the Vikings in 2004. Culpepper was 29 at the time, two years older than Brees, but several people who were in the Dolphins organization then said in recent days that the team's doctors told Saban that Culpepper's chances of making a quick and complete recovery were better than Brees's. Saban was not available to comment this week.

The Saints were more willing to take a chance that Brees's shoulder would be okay.

"Dr. Andrews was very confident in Drew's ability to come back," Loomis said Tuesday. "I had another doctor tell me he'd seen similar injuries in baseball and the first year Drew might not be 100 percent, but by Year Two he should be fine. If you draft a quarterback, it's going to take him two years to get him ready to play anyway. I never had any doctor say to me, 'No, absolutely not.' But there were different opinions on how long it would take."

New Orleans wasn't the place to be for NFL free agents at the time Brees was sorting through his options. The Saints had gone 3-13 in the 2005 season, being displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The Saints had spent the season based in San Antonio and playing home games there and in Baton Rouge, La. They'd fired Jim Haslett as their coach after the season and had hired a rookie head coach in Payton. There were concerns about whether the hurricane-ravaged city would be able to support an NFL franchise long term.

Saban coached the Dolphins to a 9-7 record in 2005, and many thought the Bill Belichick disciple would help the franchise recapture its glory days.

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