At the end of training camp practices, many of the San Diego
Chargers follow humbly as future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior
Seau leads a series of voluntary conditioning drills. In
late-afternoon sunlight players carry, throw and retrieve
14-pound, beach-ball-sized medicine balls while running 100-yard
sprints on the grass, adding to the day's fatigue. "It shows
dedication, willingness to work hard," says Seau. Late last week
quarterbacks Drew Brees and Doug Flutie shared a medicine ball
because there weren't enough to go around. While Flutie sprinted
with the ball in his right hand, Brees ran behind him, turning
cartwheels. At the 50-yard line Flutie shouted "Halfway!" and
tossed the ball blindly back to Brees, who snagged it and carried
it to the goal line, where both men arrived in stitches.
Theirs is one of the fiercest intrasquad training camp position
battles in the NFL, but it looks like recess. Consider the
disconnect: Flutie, who will turn 40 in October and has played
professional football for 17 seasons since heaving the Hail Mary
in his penultimate regular season game for Boston College, is
fighting Brees, the Chargers' second-round 2001 draft pick and
23-year-old quarterback of the future. By September, one of them
will instantly become the most important element in the Chargers'
attempt to turn around a franchise that hasn't reached the
playoffs since 1995. First-year coach Marty Schottenheimer
declared the job wide open in January and has promised equal
practice snaps. "Every day in practice it's on for both of them,"
says wide receiver Tim Dwight. Yet Brees and Flutie are such
compadres that it seems their workouts shouldn't end with the
customary earsplitting air horn but with their mommies calling
them home to dinner.
This duel would be arresting under any circumstance but is
especially interesting considering Flutie's recent history.
Refresher course: From 1998 through 2000 in Buffalo, Flutie and
Rob Johnson waged one of the ugliest quarterback feuds in NFL
history, dividing not only the team but the Bills' manic fans.
Johnson once accused Flutie of manipulating loyalties by planting
anonymous quotes in the media. In an interview with SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED last summer Johnson called Flutie a "self-promoter"
and accused him of trying to curry favor with Bills teammates.
"This is different," Flutie said last week at the Chargers'
training camp in La Jolla, still irked by the subject. "This is
legitimate competition. And I respect Drew."
Brees and Flutie were thrown together in the spring of 2001, when
new Chargers general manager John Butler, who had brought Flutie
to Buffalo in 1998, signed him as an unrestricted free agent and
then took Brees with the first pick of the second round of the
NFL draft. Their careers overlap on the quarterback's time line,
Flutie near the end of his career, Brees just beginning his. "I
was five years old when he threw that [Hail Mary] pass to beat
Miami," says Brees, wide-eyed. "My stepmom is a big fan of his."
Yet from the first minicamp a year ago they were kindred spirits.
Flutie took the opening set of reps with the starters, and when
he jogged to the sideline, he approached Brees and pointed out
several subtleties in the routes he had just thrown. It was a
revelatory moment for Brees. "When I got drafted, people warned
me about Doug," he says. "They said, 'Watch out for him. You know
what he did to Rob Johnson.' But here he was, sharing things
right away. And it was no big deal. Totally natural."
Age aside, they found themselves similar in many ways. Flutie,
5'10", 180 pounds and the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, could write
a treatise on the ways a player is impugned for being too small.
Brees, 6 feet, 212, wasn't recruited out of high school in Austin
by his hometown Texas Longhorns (among others) in part because
they thought he was too short. (He ended up at Purdue, breaking
virtually all the school's passing records and finishing third in
the 2000 Heisman race.) The two quarterbacks share a passion for
all things competitive, and they quickly began playing golf
together away from the team and inventing daily tests on the
field: throwing at trash cans, blocking sleds and goalposts, and
dropping pooch punts inside the five-yard line. Every day a dozen
games to play. "We have very similar personalities," says Flutie,
who dragged Brees out to play off-season pickup basketball at San
Diego State. (To date they have turned down wild man Dwight's
offers to teach them to surf San Diego waves.)
Their friendship was cemented a year ago on coach Mike Riley's
sinking ship, when Flutie started all 16 games, including the
nine straight losses that ended the season and sealed Riley's
firing. Brees appeared in only one game, but that was enough to
whet the rabble's appetite. On Nov. 4, after Flutie suffered a
concussion in the second quarter with San Diego trailing the
Kansas City Chiefs 16-0, Brees completed 15 of 27 passes for 221
yards and rallied the Chargers with 20 consecutive points before
they lost 25-20. It was a stunning debut, even to his teammates.
"Just walked right into the huddle and started calling plays,
totally cool," says wideout Curtis Conway, a 10-year veteran.
San Diego fans remembered the performance when the season was
clearly slipping away. They chanted for Brees and wrote his name
on placards. The usual stuff. There was speculation in the media
that Butler was telling Riley to keep playing Flutie. ("I've
never told a coach who to play, and I never will," says Butler,
who last week went public with the news that he is undergoing
treatment for lung cancer). Microphones and notebooks were pushed
under Brees's nose, giving him the opportunity to plead for a
shot, but he didn't take the bait. Down the stretch Riley gave
him equal practice reps with Flutie and kept telling him to be
ready. Still, he sat, saying only that he'd love to get some
experience but not at Flutie's expense. "Doug was playing just
fine," says Brees, even now. "Plus, I'm smart enough to know that
everybody loves the backup quarterback."
Brees's restraint earned Flutie's respect. "In that situation
it's very easy to stir things up, undermine somebody," says
Flutie. "Drew knew how to handle himself."
The quarterbacks' mutual admiration has forestalled the formation
of Flutie and Brees camps within the team. "It would be easier if
one of them was a d---, I mean jerk," center Cory Raymer said on
live radio last week.
There are other factors. "Look, this team has won six games in
two years," says Seau, Mr. Charger himself. "If this was
corporate America, a lot of these people wouldn't have jobs after
performances like that. We can't afford to be divided on
Schottenheimer also detests controversy and has a long memory,
citing a team-dividing battle that ensued when the Boston
Patriots, for whom he was playing, acquired veteran Joe Kapp to
unseat Mike Taliaferro in 1970. "Divided the team right down the
middle," Schottenheimer says. "We will go to great lengths to
avoid that here."
Schottenheimer has kept his promise to split practice time
equally between Brees and Flutie (they alternate days with the
first unit), creating a fascinating contrast of age and style.
Flutie remains remarkably nimble. In scramble drills last week he
darted away from traffic as if he were two decades younger and
delivered searing sideline completions. "He's got a better arm
than people realize," says Conway. "He can stick it in there."
The off-season regimen that has preserved him so splendidly is a
throwback: relentless basketball games, countless push-ups and
sit-ups, and, only in recent years, weightlifting with very light
weights. Eighteen years after his scrambling Heisman, Flutie is
still one of the most elusive and creative quarterbacks ever to
play the game. "We make a mistake, he gets out of trouble," says
Chargers right tackle Vaughn Parker. "You've got to love that."
Despite tendon surgery in 1995, Flutie never ices his arm after
practice; Brees does it every day, as a precaution. "I love
getting out on the field and throwing," says Flutie. "I'd go to
three practices a day if I could. The mental part--meetings,
learning new material--is a chore now."
Brees has played in only that one NFL game, yet he reads
progressions like a five-year veteran. Says Schottenheimer, "I
talked to Norv [Turner, Riley's offensive coordinator], and he
said that Drew sees the entire field as well as anybody he's
coached, and that includes Troy [Aikman]."
Adds Dwight, "Doug has a little bit more of a knack for making
the quick decision on where to go with the ball, but that's
experience. Drew is still so young, but the kid, I'm telling you,
has an amazing learning curve."
Brees was drafted high because of his uncommon accuracy, and he
has impressed even the Master of Improvisation himself with his
inventiveness. During one recent scrimmage Flutie rolled right,
away from pressure, and threw a rope on the run into the back of
the end zone. One day later Brees made the same play. "Very
instinctive," says Flutie. "There have been times when I was
competing for a job and could do things that I knew the other guy
couldn't do. This time that's not necessarily the case. Drew has
a real feel for things out there."
Scrimmages are charged with intensity. That's not only because
Schottenheimer is a taskmaster but also because every play is a
piece of evidence in a quarterback competition that
Schottenheimer is convinced will produce no decisive winner. When
Flutie hummed a strike on a red-zone seam route to tight end
Steve Heiden through a tiny hole in the secondary last Thursday,
the customary practice crowd of about 500 spectators gasped and
teammates whooped. They responded likewise five minutes later
when Brees drilled Conway in the hands on a goal line out pattern
in smothering coverage. Back and forth, back and forth.
"The plan was that somebody would earn the job and that it would
be clear-cut," says Schottenheimer. "But they're too close. I can
tell you right now, it's not going to be clear-cut. We're just
going to have to make a decision and live with it. After that,
he's the quarterback. Period." Schottenheimer has said only that
Flutie, because he was last year's starter, will start the first
exhibition game. Handicappers suggest that a curmudgeon such as
Schottenheimer will defer to Flutie's experience, but the coach
denies it. Schottenheimer is quick to point out that he elevated
rookie Bernie Kosar to starter when he was coaching the Cleveland
Browns in 1985. "I'll play the guy who gives us the best chance
to win, now," says Schottenheimer. "We're not planning for the
future--and don't read anything into that, either."
Each quarterback has reserved a small spot in his psyche to
accommodate the possibility of losing the battle. "I came back to
the NFL to experience winning a Super Bowl," says Flutie, who
played with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots from 1986
through '89. "If that means Drew Brees pulls the trigger and I
come off the bench to help us, so be it. I can live with that
because I respect his work ethic."
Brees says, "Obviously the guy who has more at stake is Doug. His
time is more precious than mine. I want this job, but if I don't
get it, I can tell myself I've got a lot more years."
They finished a seven-on-seven passing drill last week and
trailed behind their teammates in jogging across the field to the
next station. Flutie pointed to a yellow stripe on a wall at the
base of a video tower and then drilled it with a tight spiral.
Brees did the same. All in fun for now. Soon, one man plays and
the other sits. That will be an entirely different game.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SPARRING PARTNERS The Chargers' remarkably friendly QB battle pits Flutie (13,249 yards in eight NFL seasons) and Brees (221 career yards).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH THE ANSWER A quick study with an accurate arm, Brees could put an end to San Diego's six-year playoff drought.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BROTHERS IN ARMS Brees earned Flutie's undying respect by not undermining the old man during last year's dismal 5-11 campaign.
Their workouts shouldn't end with an earsplitting air horn but
with their mommies calling them to dinner.
"I came to the NFL to win a Super Bowl," says Flutie. "If that
means Drew pulls the trigger and I come off the bench, so be it."