As the Saints and Colts prepare to have all eyes on them Sunday night in Miami, Drew Brees prepares to share the biggest spotlight with the best quarterback in the world, Peyton Manning. Miami Dolphins fans have the unfortunate privilege of watching Brees play in the stadium he nearly called home.
This reality may torment Dolphin fans day in and day out, but in the Super Bowl, in their city, it has to sting more than usual. Let’s revisit Brees’ decision and explore what might have happened had it been different.
It was March of 2006 when Brees made the decision to sign with New Orleans and rookie head coach Sean Payton. The Saints were coming off a dismal season, going 3-13 and playing no games in the city of New Orleans after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Brees’ decision was partly swayed by the role the Saints -and eventually Brees- played in the rebuilding of New Orleans’ city and its spirit.
There was one other team who showed interest in Brees, who was coming off a devastating shoulder injury from his last game as a San Diego Charger. Dr. James Andrews performed the reconstruction and 30 other NFL teams were scared off. The Miami Dolphins were the one team that showed interest in the quarterback, but were unwilling to guarantee the kind of money that Brees was seeking. ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown is set to air a feature on Brees’ surgery including interviews with Andrews that will show just how badly the injured shoulder was and why every NFL team was correct in steering clear and why the Dolphins had ample reason to hesitate.
Nick Saban was the Dolphins coach that season. The Fins had just finished a 9-7 and seemed to be moving in the right direction. They were in the market for a proven quarterback and Brees was on their radar. After negotiations that were described as business-like and always had the dark cloud of Brees’ shoulder and the franchise’s injury concerns hovering, the Dolphins decided to break talks and instead traded a second-round draft pick for another quarterback coming off an injury, Daunte Culpepper. That trade was made the same day Brees signed a 6-year, $60 million contract with New Orleans.
The rest is history. Brees has been throwing touchdown passes since he signed with the Saints, has been an integral part of the rebuilding process of New Orleans and will play on sports’ biggest stage on Sunday. Culpepper lasted four games as Miami’s starter before being benched and was eventually put on injured reserve. Saban bolted for Alabama after two seasons in Miami and is now on the top of the college football heap once again with the Crimson Tide’s national championship.
But what if Brees came to South Florida? What if the Fins rolled the dice on his injured shoulder instead of Culpeper’s mangled knee? Brees had the opportunity to sign a contract with Miami for less money. Though he says that the rebuilding process after Katrina was a part of his decision-making process, would more money have tipped the tables? Let’s make like we’re all four-year-olds and play “pretend” for a few minutes. . .
The most devastating effect in this whole alternate scenario is on the city of New Orleans. In 2005, the Saints played two preseason games in the Superdome before Katrina forced them into vagabonds for the rest of the year. Training in San José and playing home games in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, the team’s future was up in the air when the curtain closed on Jim Haslett and the Saints’ season.
Had Brees donned the bright orange jersey of Miami, the Saints would have had limited options at quarterback. Culpepper may have found himself in black and gold and we all know how ready he was to play. Currently on the roster at the end of ’05 were longtime starter Aaron Brooks and backup Todd Bouman, who supplanted Brooks as the starter for the final three games of ’05. Brooks had started 82 consecutive games, but clearly his time as New Orleans’s starter was over. He was released at the end of the season.
With those options moving forward, the fortune of the Saints without Brees would have been tenuous at best. Owner Tom Benson remained committed to keep the team in New Orleans after Katrina and that effort was certainly solidified by Brees’ arrival, the team’s subsequent rousing homecoming and the events of 2006: a 10-6 season, a divisional title, a playoff win over Philadelphia and a conference championship appearance.
The magic of the 2006 return to New Orleans may have energized the team through two mediocre seasons (7-9 and 8-8) and zero playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008. Beginning the 2009 season, the team was a posh playoff pick, but many critics also thought that Sean Payton may have been on the hot seat if the magical 2006 season was followed up by a third sub-par effort.
Say the Saints plodded through 2006 with Brooks, Bouman or Culpepper at quarterback and ended up with the same record as the Dolphins (6-10) or worse. Money says that fans might turn away from the team as a beacon for hope and reality would set in pretty quickly on Benson and the ownership group. Three consecutive seasons of “Ain’ts” football might have Benson ready to sell or move the franchise to cozier surroundings like San Antonio or Los Angeles. The Saints had been playing with house money since 2006 and Payton and Brees kept the energy up by immersing themselves in New Orleans’ recovery efforts. The same may not have happened if 2006 wasn’t so sterling.
And what of the Dolphins if Brees came to Joe Robbie/Dolphins/Pro Player/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium? This is where things get really crazy in bizarro world. Brees would undoubtedly have taken the reigns of a club on the rise, coming off a 9-7 season in Saban’s first as an NFL coach. The addition of Brees of could have been league-altering. This was a team with a stellar defense left for Saban after Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt built it to dominance. The offense featured 1,000-yard rusher Ronnie Brown in his second season and four receiving options that caught over 50 passes each with quarterbacks like Culpepper and Joey Harrington under center. Wes Welker was one of those targets, leading the Dolphins in receptions.
Clearly, Brees would have nurtured this group and turned them into instant contenders the way he did with the Saints. Some may even argue that Miami had more pieces in place to become a power faster.
What would the ramifications hold for this change of fortune? Let’s explore a few:
Would Saban have bolted? In the final weeks and after the 2006 season in which the Dolphins went 6-10, the rumor mill swirled around Saban’s departure for Alabama. We have all heard the controversies and seen the name calling about his claim that he would never leave and then his exodus to Tuscaloosa. But what if Brees brought him another winning season? A division title? A playoff win? An AFC Conference Championship appearance? These are all things Brees did in his first year with the Saints, and we already established that Miami’s supporting cast may have been more ready to take a longer leap.
That 2006 season ended up being the first losing season of Saban’s head coaching career. He hadn’t even gone .500 since he went 6-6 twice in three years (1996 and 1998) while coaching at Michigan State University. Odds are, Saban would have wanted to see this through and with Brees in place, there would be no reason to ditch the Dolphins.
So what of Alabama? Clearly, the team would be on the lookout for another high-profile coach after dismissing Mike Shula after four seasons, the last of which being 6-6 campaign. Would the Crimson Tide’s win in the BCS Championship game last month still happen? Doubtful, seeing as no one but Saban could have done what happened in the turn-around of that program. Saban went 6-6 (2007) in his first season at Alabama before going 12-0 in 2008’s regular season, ending that year with losses to Florida in the SEC Championship and Utah in the Sugar Bowl. In 2009, the Tide became BCS Champions. None of this would have happen if Saban stayed and he very well may have if Brees roamed South Beach.
What of Wes Welker? Would he have been traded after Brees developed a connection with him in 2006? Like Tom Brady, Brees may have been able to bring out the best in the receiver Miami branded as a borderline slot guy with great return skills. The next season, Welker got a lowball offer from the Fins and the Patriot swooped in and traded Miami a two draft picks (rounds 2 and 7) for the Texas Tech graduate. This would surely impact the Patriots’ dynasty moving forward and have some effect on Moss and Brady’s production without their slot weapon. Furthermore, with Saban still in control and the Dolphins making more sound decisions without being in front office limbo, the chances they recognized the talent and locked him are more likely.
Alas, for Dolphins fans this reality never materialized. The Saints got Brees and now here we are. I do believe the signing of Brees in New Orleans was meant to be. He was the perfect fit of great player, amazing human being for that city at the right time. The way he dove right into New Orleans has been inspiring and he has become a major part of that city’s rebirth. He truly embraced the Crescent City from the word go. Brees and his wife, Brittany, chose to restore a 100-year-old New Orleans mansion and have become true New Orleanians. His charitable contributions and activity in the Katrina recovery have been immeasurable.
Now it’s time to see if Brees can do something that would be a first and not a restoration…winning the Super Bowl for the city he now calls home in the city he almost did.
Here is my pick for the Super Bowl. Odds are from Danny Sheridan as of Friday Night.
NEW ORLEANS (+5) 34, Indianapolis 31
I think the magic continues and the Saints take the whole enchilada. The game should be very exciting and I see lots of scoring. I think the difference will be turnovers caused by the Saints defense and the mojo that comes with having most of the nation rooting for you and the good karma that comes with overcoming a natural disaster like Katrina. A new America’s Team will be crowned Sunday night. Who dat?