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Beating the odds

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Too small, too limited, too hurt.

Quarterback Drew Brees, who at a relatively skinny 6-foot tall looks more like the NFL's version of St. Louis Cardinal David Eckstein, has heard it all about how he wasn't supposed to make it. Then, he heard how he wasn't supposed to make it back. Now, about the only thing people want to know is how Brees is going to help the New Orleans Saints make it to the playoffs.

Brees, coming off a 510-yard passing performance (sixth most in NFL history) in a loss to Cincinnati, wasn't expected to have yet another productive season, many medical experts thought. However, he has overcome odds that make trying to reach the postseason seem like a … breeze.

Despite his outstanding numbers, which include a league-high 3,114 yards passing, New Orleans has lost three of its past four games. The Saints (6-4), who were the darlings of the first half of the season in their return to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, are now in a three-team jumble for the NFC South lead.

The Saints play at Atlanta (5-5), which has lost three straight, on Sunday and hope to keep pace with Carolina (6-4). While New Orleans' rise from last year's disaster still seems improbable, Brees has had his own hurdles to clear.

In March, the Dolphins and Saints were competing for Brees' services after San Diego let the former Pro Bowler go as a free agent because of a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. At the time, Brees' arm was in a sling because of surgery.

In other words, whoever signed Brees was doing so without knowing if he would throw again. The Dolphins had doctors from all over the country look at Brees' MRI results. The consensus was that Brees might not be ready to play this season and the Dolphins instead opted to trade for Daunte Culpepper.

Now, Brees is putting himself in the NFL record book, even if he's not exactly happy about that. Last Sunday, Brees lit up Cincinnati as he tried to bring the Saints back. The problem is that Brees' performance was clouded by three interceptions, including two in the end zone – the last of which was returned for a touchdown.

"We put ourselves in a bad situation at the end of the fourth quarter," Brees said. "It was really those last two drives where we were in an all-out pass mode. I think we'd all like to be more balanced and be in positions where we're up by two touchdowns and hammering it with Deuce [McAllister] and Reggie [Bush] and not having to throw it because you're having to catch up."

Still, the numbers he's posting are excellent. He has completed 66.3 percent of his passes to go with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Prior to this season, Brees was considered more of a quarterback suited to manage a game and play off the strengths of San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates.

"We didn't ask Drew to do a lot with the ball," San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer said in training camp. "Let the people around you help you, that's our thinking. Not that Drew isn't capable, but …"

But Brees, heading into his fourth season at the time, really wasn't supposed to be the starter – at least not during his last two seasons in San Diego. The Chargers made a switch on draft day in 2004 that resulted in them landing Philip Rivers, who was brought in to play immediately. However, Rivers held out for better contract terms during training camp and wasn't ready to take over for the season opener. Brees not only retained the starter's role, but rose to prominence – putting together a Pro Bowl season that included 27 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions.

Brees' follow-up in 2005 was fine … until he was injured in the season finale. Eventually, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith decided it wasn't worth keeping Brees because of the injury – a decision easier to make considering Rivers was waiting in the wings.

After the Dolphins decided to drop their pursuit of Brees, only New Orleans remained in the hunt and it became a marriage of necessity. Brees needed a job. The Saints, who were considered one of the worst potential landing spots for veteran players, needed the credibility of signing a top player.

The necessity got to the point that money was no object. The Saints gave Brees a $10 million signing bonus as part of a six-year, $60 million deal, which also includes $12 million total in the first year and $25 million overall in the first two years. Right now, those terms don't seem outlandish.

In March, it was quite a reach. The Saints only started at $7 million for the first year of the contract, but gave in to more lucrative terms.

"Look, once you're talking about those kinds of numbers, what's the difference between $7 million and $10 million?" Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said in March. "We needed the guy. That was it."

The payoff has been as extraordinary as it has been fortunate. Shortly after Brees signed, agent Tom Condon acknowledged publicly that Brees had nearly a complete tear of his rotator cuff. It's the same type of injury that forced Jets quarterback Chad Pennington and former No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch to go through two surgeries each. Couch has yet to return to the game.

"Hey, Drew said he wasn't going to miss any time," Condon said. "The doctors were more cautious and they said it might be longer, but Drew did everything to make sure he was going to get back. He wasn't going to let people think this was going to slow him down."

That's part of what people have always missed in Brees. In the 2001 NFL draft, he was vastly overshadowed by Michael Vick in the quarterback crop. Vick went No. 1 and Brees went in the second round. The two face off on Sunday, but there is little question about who is the better passer.

"Look, if you drafted them again, everybody would still take Vick first," said an NFL executive who did not wish to be identified. "The draft is all about size, speed and strength and you don't get athletes like Vick. You have to take him and believe you can make him a player.

"But I think the point that Brees shows is that we all tend to under value intangibles. The kid should have gone higher in the draft. You look back on it and we all put too much stock in his size and we didn't really look at the accuracy and his makeup."

Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo said he was one of the believers from the start.

"I know it sounds convenient to say it now, but I really liked him when he was coming out," Angelo said. "With all the great ones, the thing that really separates them – and he graded out very high on all of those things to me – are poise, accuracy and toughness. He has all of that.

"When you saw him get hit, you didn't see his eye level change. He was still standing in there, ready to fire the ball down field. He didn't back down from anything."

Still, plenty of teams backed away from taking a chance on Brees. That again included the Dolphins, who had a pressing quarterback need even then. But former Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt frowned at the idea of taking Brees, believing that veteran Jay Fiedler was better. Wannstedt instead took cornerback Jamar Fletcher in the first round, who went on to be one of the biggest busts in team history.

The only time Wannstedt ever entertained the thought of taking Brees was when he wanted to bluff other teams into trading up for the rights to draft him. The NFL saw through that ploy.

Then again, based on what has happened, everybody missed the real point.