WHAT IF DREW BREES HAD PASSED HIS DOLPHINS PHYSICAL?
IF NFL FILMS ever produces The NFL's Greatest Medical Exams, Drew Brees's visit to New Orleans in March 2006 will get top billing. The QB was 27 and coming off shoulder surgery. The Dolphins brought him in and wavered. The Saints signed him instead.
Life has been hell for Miamians ever since, except for the fact they live in Miami, so never mind. But still: The Dolphins chose Daunte Culpepper over Brees, who had started his career in San Diego. That kind of decision can set a franchise back a decade—and it has.
It's easy to question Miami brass now, knowing what we know about Brees and his career. But at the time the Dolphins had legitimate reasons to be wary. The QB had a torn right labrum. He'd made one Pro Bowl. He hadn't won a playoff game. Everybody knew he was a viable starter when healthy, but he didn't appear headed to the Hall of Fame. The Chargers, skeptical, traded for Philip Rivers and wanted to give the new guy a chance.
The Dolphins and second-year coach Nick Saban looked hard at Brees before trading a second-round pick for Culpepper instead. Brees's agent, Tom Condon, said at the time that Miami was "not comfortable with the money in the first year.... It wasn't a very good fit and they had to move on."
Miami worried about the wrong injury. Since signing with the Saints, Brees has played 174 of a possible 176 games and won a Super Bowl over a team led by an in-his-prime Peyton Manning. Culpepper, who was recovering from a knee injury himself that spring, played four games for the Fins. Four. And you don't have to be from Miami to wonder: What if ... ?
MIAMI, APRIL 17, 2017—Drew Brees doesn't like to talk about it. He's a South Florida icon now, more popular in these parts than Dan Marino ever was. But it's amazing to think about how close Brees came to signing with the Saints, back when they played in New Orleans.
The year was 2006. Brees, a free agent, met with the Dolphins and the Saints. Miami coach Nick Saban defied the advice of team doctors and convinced the QB to sign with him. Even as the Dolphins went 8--8 in Brees's first season, Saban knew he had something special brewing—which is why, when somebody asked him that year about the vacant Alabama job, Saban uttered the words that have made him beloved in Miami: "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach."
A year later Brees's Dolphins stunned the undefeated Patriots in the playoffs before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII on a crazy catch by David Tyree. Still, football's greatest rivalry was born: Pats vs. Fins; Belichick vs. Saban, his former pupil; Brady vs. Brees. It's so weird to think that people used to say Brady's biggest rival was Peyton Manning.
Miami ended New England's stranglehold on the AFC East; the two teams have alternated division titles every subsequent year. Conspiracy theorists say the Dolphins' rise frustrated Belichick and Co. so much that they began looking for any kind of edge, up to and including illegally deflating balls. (Belichick and Brady deny any such accusations.)
Meanwhile, Alabama foolishly believed Saban was bluffing when he said he wasn't coming. Seriously now, could the man have been any clearer? When Crimson Tide officials made their formal pitch and Saban said no, they turned instead where desperate schools turn: Louisville's Bobby Petrino.
Petrino was a brilliant play-caller, but after his first season he got into a motorcycle accident with his mistress on board—then he lied about it. He was fired. This is just the kind of thing that happens at Alabama. Tide fans have finally come to accept what was obvious to the rest of the world back in 2006: There will never be another Bear Bryant.
But hey, at least they still have their team, as mediocre as it always is. You can't say the same for the poor folks in New Orleans. After Brees chose Miami, the Saints compounded their QB woes by trading a second-round pick for Daunte Culpepper. Then they lost 15 games. Culpepper played only four of them.
Worse for Saints fans was owner Tom Benson's following through on his threat to move his team to San Antonio. There was consolation for Bayou State fans, though, in the form of the sport's most beloved coach of the last 30 years: LSU's Les Miles.
Miles beat Alabama in 10 straight seasons, won 10 straight SEC West titles and earned four national titles to establish himself as arguably the greatest college coach of all time. LSU fans loved his trick plays and quirky personality so much that in 2016 they helped elect him governor, inspired by his urgent campaign slogan, "Time Is Running Out." Some of Gov. Miles's new policies are controversial, like the mandatory inclusion of grass in school lunches. And there remain plenty of Louisianans who wonder how Miles can be governor and coach LSU at the same time, but as he points out, "If you have the chest to believe, damn strong men running in the upper quadrant of speed compete like a son of a bitch." Hard to argue with that.
Saban will never be governor. For one, he has no interest in politics. Last Nov. 8, he said he didn't even know it was Election Day, which made him the perfect Florida resident. He's content to coach football and occasionally enjoy a fine meal at one of his upscale steak houses, Saban's (formerly known as Shula's).
Brees gets out more. You saw him courtside at Heat games, cheering on LeBron James as he won two titles. That was before James went back to Cleveland, leading Skip Bayless to scream that James just couldn't handle life in Brees's shadow.
We bring all of this up because Brees should pass 70,000 career passing yards this fall. He's a lock for the Hall, and the best decision that Saban ever made. The coach admitted to Brees, years later, that he was nervous about that signing—he'd only defied doctors one other time, when he was told to lay off the Little Debbie Creme pies. But it's hard to imagine these two without each other.
Of course, the only reason Saban needed a QB at all was that in 2005 he'd used the No. 2 pick in his first draft on running back Ronnie Brown. Now, if he'd just taken Aaron Rodgers....
But hey, at least Alabama still has its team, AS MEDIOCRE AS IT ALWAYS WAS. You can't say the same for the POOR FOLKS IN NEW ORLEANS.