SAN DIEGO – Now it becomes truly complicated. Not because Drew Brees is leading what someday will be Philip Rivers' team. Not because the San Diego Chargers are storming the NFL with a lame duck quarterback.
Now it gets complicated because Drew Brees is giving the Chargers hope. Removing him from this roster might be like wiping the lightning bolts off the helmets.
Yet here we are. The Chargers are 6-3 after blowing out the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and Brees now has some of the best numbers of any quarterback in the NFL. Only together do they make the league's most intriguing and unbelievable story line.
Brees led San Diego to its third straight win – a 43-17 pounding of the Saints in which he threw for 257 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Over the last six games, Brees has completed 121 of 170 passes (71 percent) for 1,378 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception, helping San Diego go 5-1 during the tear.
"He definitely is the captain of the ship," tight end Antonio Gates said of Brees. "If he doesn't have the confidence that he has, the team doesn't."
For better or worse, The Brees Express is pointed out of San Diego. And if Brees continues on his current pace (he now has 18 touchdowns and three interceptions), it could be a far costlier exit than anyone ever imagined.
Six weeks ago – perhaps even three weeks ago – Brees' certain departure didn't spell anything more than a tragedy in talent evaluation. But now the Chargers suddenly are depending on a pillar slated for removal at season's end and set to be replaced by Rivers, the rookie whose $40 million contract and $14 million signing bonus make him the franchise's long-term foundation.
It's a transition that could prove far tougher now that teammates are fully embracing Brees.
"You always want to have a guy like Drew – a guy that takes you out and leads you and has that focus," Chargers receiver Keenan McCardell said. "And I'm not saying Philip isn't that type of guy, too. But right now, it's Drew's time. You get your opportunities and you take advantage of them. Philip is going to have his opportunities. But right now, Drew is seizing his."
With the maturation of Gates, the addition of the reliable McCardell and a surprisingly efficient offensive line, the Chargers suddenly have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Add an opportunistic defense and a somewhat soft schedule, and San Diego is promoting itself as a frightening playoff contender.
But put the winning aside for a moment. Here's one of the most epically botched quarterback/front office marriages in the NFL. The 25-year-old Brees is essentially auditioning for another starting job, while the Chargers are looking a little hasty in their talent evaluations.
After two seasons with Brees at the helm, the Chargers didn't believe he was the right fit for their offense. This realization came despite the conventional wisdom that it takes three years as a starter for a quarterback to show dividends. Also, the team drew that conclusion despite the reality that Brees spent last season, only his second as a starter, surrounded by building blocks that were either corrosive (the now departed David Boston) or still developing (the suddenly starring Gates).
Two other second-year quarterbacks went through the same struggles as Brees. David Carr in Houston and Joey Harrington in Detroit had similar problems. And while Brees was putting up better numbers than both of them in his first two years as a starter, Carr and Harrington had what he did not: prototypical size and massive signing bonuses that dictated managerial patience.
While Carr and Harrington were given the benefit of the doubt, Brees was given a successor named Philip Rivers. And that's how we ended up here, with Carr and Harrington blossoming for their respective franchises and Brees auditioning to find another home.
With Rivers slated to be the future starter in San Diego, the only way the Chargers can keep Brees is to slap a franchise tag on him. The price? Roughly $10 million for a one-year contract. With Rivers already making starter's dollars, you won't find a more clear financial bon voyage.
"I'm not kidding myself," Brees said this week. "I know how this works. I know why they brought in another quarterback. But I can't worry about it. I can only go out and play and see what happens after the season.
"But this is something that would be happening whether they had drafted a quarterback or not. The competition thing is there, yeah. And of course I wasn't thrilled when they drafted someone to replace me. But it's not like drafting a quarterback did this. It's not like it drove this."
And "this" is nothing less than spectacular. Despite running back LaDainian Tomlinson struggling through a groin injury, the Chargers suddenly are a team with a swagger. Gates, who caught three of Brees' four touchdowns against the Saints, is looking like one of the best tight ends in the NFL. McCardell, who was acquired at the trade deadline, is growing into the No. 1 receiver role with every game. And when Tomlinson regains his Pro Bowl form, watch out.
Yet the scary reality is that Brees seems to be making the team tick. Even head coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose stature ironically has been improved by the quarterback he wanted to mothball, has had to tip his cap.
"It is significant, dramatic," Schottenheimer said when asked what a team gains from a quarterback as confident as Brees. "Regardless of the circumstances, the quarterback gives you hope."
For now, that's precisely what Brees is giving the Chargers. Hope, confidence, swagger. A franchise can spend an eternity searching for a player that offers all three. But in this strange story, San Diego has found that player – and appears destined to lose him – in a single season.