Drew Brees will play at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday for the first time since Dec. 31, 2005, when he walked off the field holding his right arm at a 90-degree angle from his side because of a shoulder injury.
That was his last game of quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, who gave him a low-ball offer and then let him leave as a free agent so that understudy Philip Rivers could become the starter.
Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints, leading them through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and then to a Super Bowl title following the 2009 season.
Sunday, he'll lead the winless Saints (0-3) against Rivers’ struggling Chargers (1-2), who once again are threatening to leave for Los Angeles, this time if a controversial ballot measure for a new stadium downtown doesn’t pass on Nov. 8.
Aging Qualcomm Stadium, where Brees’ Chargers career ended, is the only stadium he hasn’t played in with the Saints.
“Listen, I’ve got a ton of great memories from there,” Brees said. “I can close my eyes and visualize the stadium; visualize the ring of honor, all the names in it, the scoreboard, the flags that wave up on the top of the stadium. I can visualize it like it was yesterday.”
Said Rivers: “It'll be neat. You’re not playing the other quarterback, but it’s always meaningful going against Hall of Fame players. Shoot, I’ve had a chance to go against a lot of them and Drew’s certainly one of those guys. I’m sure it will be an exciting Sunday.”
Here are some things that put Sunday’s matchup between Brees’ Saints and Rivers’ Chargers into perspective:
The Early Years: Brees was in the same draft class as LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. He became the starter in 2002, helping San Diego to an 8-8 record in Marty Schottenheimer’s first season as coach. His final three years were a soap opera. The 2003 season was a nightmare as Brees threw 15 interceptions and only 11 touchdowns, and was benched in favor of Doug Flutie. The Chargers obtained Rivers from the New York Giants on draft day in 2004, but Rivers held out during training camp and Brees kept his job. He bounced back, leading the Chargers to the AFC West title and winning the AP Comeback Player of the Year award. Brees was again the starter in 2005, forcing Rivers to sit again.
The Injury: Eliminated from the playoff race with one game to go in 2005, Schottenheimer wanted to finish 10-6 and so he played his starters against Denver. In the second quarter, Brees dropped back to pass in his end zone and was blindsided by the blitzing John Lynch, who hacked at his right arm. Brees fumbled and was hurt when he went for the ball and had defensive tackle Gerard Warren land on him. Denver won the meaningless game. Brees has been back to Qualcomm Stadium only once since, to work at Reggie Bush’s camp.
The Departure: Brees had surgery and was essentially pushed out the door by the Chargers, who turned to Rivers. Brees became a free agent, shopping himself to Miami and New Orleans. The Saints, who didn’t view him as damaged goods, signed him.
“At the time it was post-Katrina, so when we were recruiting coaches or signing free agents we couldn’t just be equal to our competitors, we had to be aggressive,” coach Sean Payton said.
The Saints knew Brees would work hard in rehab to get back, and they told him he wouldn’t have to throw a lot until training camp.
“The main thing we felt all those intangibles were going to be working in his favor and fortunately we were right,” Payton said.
The Aftermath: In his fourth season in New Orleans, Brees was voted Super Bowl MVP after helping lead the once woebegone Saints to victory against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Rivers led the Chargers to four straight AFC West titles and to the AFC championship game after the 2007 season, which the Bolts lost to New England. That was the closest the Chargers have come to the Super Bowl with Rivers as starter. They’ve missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons.
The Connection: Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates are the only two Chargers left from Brees’ days in San Diego. While coming back will be special, Brees is focused more on getting the Saints their first win.
“I’ve been trying to make this just like any other game,” he said. “It’s been hard to do that obviously, because its meaningful, but here we are in a short week, coming off a Monday night game and just trying to get all my preparation in, trying to get all the emotions out of the way, too, before game day. Because once I step in that stadium it’s all about business and doing whatever we can to win the game.”
New Orleans at San Diego
When: 3:25 p.m. Sunday
Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Radio: 870-AM, 105.3 FM