One of the key players as the Vikings look to gain a measure of revenge against the New Orleans Saints will be quarterback Drew Brees. Known the King of Bourbon Street, Brees' ascent to the top of his profession has been a circuitous one that was far from assured.
Heading into the 2001 season, many believed the Chargers, who owned the top pick in the draft, would select quarterback Michael Vick, but the team had different ideas. It traded the pick to move down four spots (to select future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson), stocked up on additional draft picks and used the first pick of the second round to take Brees.
Flash forward three years. The Chargers again had the first pick in the draft and were poised to select Eli Manning, which would, for all intents, end the starting career of Brees in San Diego. Instead, thanks to Manning's dad Archie getting involved in talks and advising his son not to sign with the Chargers, San Diego made a trade to acquire Philip Rivers (the fourth pick of the draft) from the Giants. It seemed as though Brees was destined to get run out of town. However, he put together a Pro Bowl season in 2004 and was given the franchise designation. The following year, his season ended with a horrible throwing shoulder injury that left his career in jeopardy.
Only two teams – New Orleans and Miami – made overtures toward him in free agency, but when the Vikings traded Daunte Culpepper to the Dolphins, Miami got out of the bidding. The Saints stepped up with a contract offer, but one that had an out-clause that effectively would allow the team to dump him if things didn't work out. Things did and the rest has been NFL history.
During the tumultuous times in San Diego, Vikings linebacker Ben Leber and Brees were teammates. Leber saw firsthand the willingness Brees had to work hard to get better and said he hasn't been overly surprised by the success Brees has enjoyed since joining the Saints.
"The one thing that stuck out to me about him in San Diego was his work ethic," Leber said. "All the situations that he had to battle through there, with Philip being on the bench and so much talk in the media, he just kept his head down, played his game and came to work every day. He led by example. He would work out in the weight room every day as hard as the defensive linemen even though he was a quarterback. It wasn't always important for guys like him to be in the weight room, but he did. Whether it was the weight room or the film room, he was one of those guys who was the first guy in the facility in the morning and the last to leave at night."
Leber said that the extra work Brees has always committed himself to doing has made him one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL and, as a Super Bowl champion, he doesn't have much more to prove to his critics. He is undersized by prototype QB standards. He doesn't have a rocket for an arm. But he has intangibles that separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones.
"He has incredible poise," Leber said. "He never seems to get rattled. I think he's so good about knowing where to go with the ball. He does a lot of preparation away from the facility and is constantly watching film and seeing things that he can exploit. He puts a lot of time into his craft and it shows in his numbers."
Leber said it isn't a fluke that Brees has posted record-setting completion numbers. He has a knack for reading defenses and immediately recognizing where a mismatch will be and delivering the ball on time and on target. As the saying goes – you can't stop Brees, the best you can hope to do is contain him. Leber believes the best option for the Vikings will be to not give Brees a first read that shows the defense's intentions. Because he is so adept at picking up on switches and pre-snap moves, that is an even more daunting challenge.
"Any time you're going against a veteran quarterback, it's on us to disguise things," Leber said. "You want to make everything look like a base Cover-2 and go from there, but Drew is so savvy that we may have to hold things a second or so longer so we don't tip our hand. You try to disrupt every quarterback, but he has so much poise that isn't easy."
Brees' story is the kind that movies are made out of. For a distressed region of the country devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Brees helped give the fans something to be inspired by. He's come a long way since being drafted in the second round and effectively run out of San Diego, but, despite being an opponent, his former teammate said that his success wasn't by luck and couldn't have happened to a better person.
"I don't think anyone but Drew himself could have foreseen what he was going to be able to do with his career," Leber said. "It's a testament to his work ethic and pride in what he does. To come off a shoulder injury in which nobody was willing to give him a long-term contract, he made the most of his opportunities and never gave up on himself. He earned his Super Bowl ring. We didn't want to see him get it given how he got to the Super Bowl, but I'm happy for him because he was a guy who didn't have anything handed him. He had to earn it and he did."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Leber: Brees has earned it
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