A different breed of controversy

Drew Brees has been passing with a hot hand as of late, which in turn has made the discussion of his future with the team an equally hot topic. Now, the fans that were calling for him to be traded during the draft are hoping desperately for the team to find a way to keep him beyond this season. Unfortunately for those fans, there is no possible scenario in which this can happen, or is there?

What is interesting is how all of this talk about the great play of Brees has ended the buzz that once existed around the beginning of the Philip Rivers era. Rivers' inactivity has made it easy to forget his incredible credentials. He is the second-leading passer in NCAA history, and the first player in the history of the ACC to pass for over 3,000 yards in three separate seasons. While these successes are not guaranteed to translate to the pro level, the solid play of Brees has made that occurrence no less likely.

What is amazing, however, is that league analysts keep reporting that this recently spectacular performance by Brees has put the Chargers front office in a bad situation, and has left Brees with all of the negotiating leverage heading into the off-season. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, the solid play of Brees has this team thinking playoffs at the season's halfway point. Now, the losing mentality that Coach Schottenheimer has been working for years to vanquish finally seems to have been exorcised.

Secondly, Brees' stellar play has created a solid trade market for his services. This will allow the Chargers to put the franchise tag on him in order to reserve his rights, and then trade him away to the highest bidder.

Some have said the Chargers will be not able to afford this, but that is not true. The team will head into the off-season approximately $22 million under the salary cap (and that is before additional space is freed up by the probable cuts of Jason Fisk and Tim Dwight). Franchising Brees will cost just under $10 million. The key here is that every cent of that cap charge will be refunded immediately when either Brees is traded or the franchise tag is lifted, which the team can do at any time.

It is true that other teams may be reluctant to trade for a player when it is believed he will eventually be released anyway. Rest assured, when a team wants a player badly enough, they will trade for him rather than risk signing him later on in free agency. If Mark Brunell can garner a third round pick when well past his prime, then the Chargers can surely to acquire at least a second rounder for a player who is younger and is coming off of a more productive season.

This does not mean that franchising Brees is not without risk. There looms the possibility that Brees will actually sign the one-year tender of approximately $9.8 million. He would then return to camp as the incumbent, and Rivers would no longer hold the financial advantage in a competition for the starting position because Brees would actually be making more than Rivers under that scenario.

However, Brees would be very unlikely to sign the tender. For one thing, he is young and coming off of his most productive season. It would be in his best interests to land a long-term contract while his value is at its peak. Secondly, if he were to return on a one-year deal, it would mean that Rivers would still be viewed as the quarterback of the future. So, if Brees were to falter, the team could very well show a quick hook in an attempt to get some return on their big investment in Rivers' future. This would provide a serious hit to Brees' value as he was heading into yet another contract year, and so he would end up losing a significant amount of money in the long run.

So even though Brees likely would not sign the one-year tender, trading him could still be tricky, as Brees would technically not be under contract while franchised. Therefore, he would first have to agree to a new contract with any potential suitors before a trade could be finalized. This is where many analysts feel Brees has a good deal of leverage, as he could refuse to sign a contract until he is released and allowed to negotiate a contract with any team he chooses.

But remember, with the Chargers owning two first round picks in next year's draft, they will need to set aside nearly $10 million to sign their draft picks in July, and to prepare for any potential in-season pick-ups should injuries occur. So if they wanted, they could hold Brees' rights until right around the first week of July. By that time, teams will have exhausted most of their salary cap space, as the free agent frenzy and the June 1st signings will have long been over.

Also, there are only a handful of teams in need of a franchise passer. If Brees eschews contract offers while franchised, he may not only cost himself money, but possibly a shot at a starting job as well. There are only a few teams in the market for a starting quarterback, and players such as Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, and possibly even Matt Hasselbeck are likely to be available.

So the Chargers will franchise Brees, and trade him in exchange for what will likely be a second round pick. Rivers will experience an entire training camp, and will exceed expectations as a starter. People are quick to compare this year's Chargers to last year's Bengals, and so point to Carson Palmer's current struggles as a reason to curb their optimism for next season's Chargers squad.

Fortunately for Chargers fans, Phillip Rivers is not Carson Palmer. While Palmer took four full seasons to grasp the offense at USC, Phillip Rivers played so well from the get go at NC State that he won ACC rookie of the year honors. Rivers will be prepared to win from the beginning, and I expect him to do exactly that.

But until all of this is finalized in the off-season, Chargers fans are stuck in a place ironic enough to inspire an Alanis Morissette song. They are complaining because of the problems created by the fact that Brees is playing too well. Not only is this not a problem, it is the best case scenario.

The team now gets to enjoy a winning season and a shot at the playoffs; they get to let their ultra-talented quarterback of the future watch and learn during his rookie season so that he can be more prepared when he does take over; and they likely will get back the second round pick they spent on Brees four years ago, when it looked as if the team would be forced to let him walk while getting nothing at all in return.

People have been speaking about how intense the Rivers versus Eli Manning games were sure to be. Well, my guess is the Rivers versus Brees showdowns will not be too shabby either.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@sandiegosports.net

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