Talk to anyone about Drew Brees, from family to longtime friends to past and present teammates — and you’ll get some awesome stories about his legendary competitiveness.
Before the New Orleans Saints quarterback became the NFL’s all-time passing leader, he was a multisport star who once beat a younger Andy Roddick in youth tennis and once committed to play baseball at TCU. But there are also many classic tales of his exploits on a golf course, pingpong table, a pickleball court, a horseshoe pit or the seed-spitting and grasshopper-catching contests he had with his brother, Reid, on their grandfather’s ranch. Apparently the only thing he can’t do is stunt bartending.
As Brees approaches his 40th birthday on Tuesday — and the Saints’ playoff opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox) — we gathered some of the best behind-the-scenes stories on the future Hall of Famer.
Don’t underestimate his jump-roping skills
Steve Gleason, former Saints teammate: “In 2006, when he was brand new to New Orleans, Drew was rehabbing his shoulder from the brutal injury he had sustained the previous season. At this point, just a week or two into the offseason training, we hadn’t had any team meetings, and Drew hadn’t addressed the team. We didn’t know if he would even play football again. And having spent the previous six seasons with average leadership at the quarterback position, I was skeptical and waiting to see what type of player, and what type of leader, he would be for us. In the locker room, Drew was doing some jump-rope drills, and some guys were chirping about his skills. ‘Nice work Drew. You should do double Dutch next! Ha!.’ ‘I’ll get some chalk. You can do some hopscotch for tomorrow’s rehab!’ Then someone said, ‘How about some double unders? How many double jumps can you do? 10? 20? 25?’ Drew replied, ‘How many do you want me to do? Let’s bet on it.’ I spoke up. ‘Fifty. Do 50 and I’ll be impressed.’ Drew calmly asked, ‘What’s the bet Gleas?’ We decided on a sushi dinner, and at this point a decent crowd had formed in the training room. I figured he had no chance at this, and I’d be enjoying a sushi dinner on Drew. He got to 20 and guys started getting excited. Twenty-five and things got more intense. At 40, it got loud enough that guys started coming in from the locker room to see what was going on. Drew hit 50 and kept rolling. He got to 75 without missing a beat and just decided that was enough. He came over to my training table, shook my hand while looking me in the eye with that confident yet semi-humble half smile that this city has come to know so well. That was my first experience in learning not to doubt Drew’s physical abilities.”
No one’s taking his job
Reid Brees, Drew’s younger brother: “It was the summer before his senior year of high school, we used to work out at our high school field quite a bit. And we had this new kid who moved into our district, and he was a quarterback at his old school. He ended up showing up at our high school football field one day during one of these summer practices, and he was talking about how he wanted to be the starting quarterback that coming year. And Drew was coming off of an ACL surgery, so he was just now kind of getting around, running and throwing and stuff like that. But one of the guys kind of pointed over in Drew’s direction and said, ‘Well, if you come to this high school, you’re gonna have to beat out that guy.’ And the guy kind of says, ‘Well, what’s so special about him?’ So we call Drew over and Drew starts chatting with him, and so they end up having this passing competition. From the first throw, this guy knew he was out of his league, because the first trick throw, there was a trash can that was on the other side of the field — about 50 yards away. And the guy says, ‘OK, well how about we throw and whoever can hit that trash can, that’ll be the first contest?’ So Drew goes first and Drew’s first throw, he puts it in the trash can. He doesn’t just hit the trash can, he throws it into the trash can. So the guy, just the look on his face was like, ‘OK, this is what I’m dealing with.’ So I can’t remember what that guy’s name was, but he wound up never showing up at our high school. He ended up going to another high school in the area, and I can’t remember if he had a good career or not. But those were the kinds of things Drew did — not like on a daily basis, but he would do enough to where his family and friends kind of knew it wasn’t anything out of the norm. It was something where he could just do almost anything.”
Stepping up to the challenge
Ben Smith, Brees’ close friend and college roommate: “We were both freshmen quarterbacks at Purdue, and were at our first fall camp. And I’m overwhelmed, nervous because it was the first day the seniors show up after a week of just freshmen being on campus. And the two seniors quarterbacks were struggling, so Coach [Joe] Tiller looked over at the three freshmen and yelled, ‘One of you young guys get in here because these upperclassmen aren’t cutting it!’ Probably more to light a fire under the upperclassmen. But I can remember thinking, ‘No way in hell am I stepping up there.’ I literally kind of take a step back and try to hide behind somebody else. And before I could even do that, Drew was stepping up, ready to take the snap. He took the snap, Yellow 93 was the play — a four-route go — and threw a dart right on the money to, I think it was Ike Jones. That was the day that my eyes opened. I guess that was the day that I figured out two things: one, he was pretty good and two, that I needed to find a new position. And that really paints the perfect picture of what Drew is. He’s a competitor. He loves pressure, loves pressure. I have never seen a human being relish being under pressure like him.”
‘A different pingpong player’
Zach Strief, longtime Saints teammate: “Really there’s about 10 of these stories, but we get the pingpong table in the locker room and he’s not in there near as much as we are. His workouts take longer, his film takes longer. And so he walks into the locker room one day, and we’ve been playing for a couple months, and he decides, ‘Hey, let’s play.’ And I think because he’s a tennis player, he’s got this big forehand. It’s all forehand, forehand. So he’s putting a lot of topspin on it. I stand right by the table, and the only thing I’m really good at defending is a topspin ball. So I am just working him, it’s relentless. He’s got no answers and he’s trying to slam everything and I’m returning everything. So we played twice and I beat him both times by a substantial margin. And he drops the paddle on the table and he turns and walks to his locker. He doesn’t say a word. And I’m thinking this is the perfect opportunity to kind of rib him a little bit. So I’m like giving it to him a little bit, walking to his locker, ‘Hey, we could play again, maybe I could play with another paddle,’ just trying to push it on. He doesn’t say a word. And I think he’s legitimately upset with me — at the very least unwilling to look the guy who just beat him in the eye. So I kind of let it go.
“About a week later I walk into the locker room, it’s right after practice, and Drew’s in the locker room, which is unusual — he’s usually right to the weight room. And he’s like, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And I’m like, ‘OK. You want some more? OK great, let’s go do it.’ And Drew is a different pingpong player. I’m talking like full barrage of shot ability, returning things, like cut shots at the net. He’s got answers for everything. So he beats me two of three. And we’re kind of laughing, and he kind of gives me that little look. Like he’s not gonna talk s—, but he gives me that look to say, ‘That’s right. You got what was coming to you.’ So I walk away from the table and I’m asking all the guys that we usually play with, ‘Have you played Drew lately?’ Not one person had played pingpong with him. Without question — this is not an opinion — Drew Brees was practicing, either in the locker room by himself — we had a little ball shooter — or he was finding games outside of the facility. And he can claim he didn’t. But to me, that’s very much Drew. One, it’s important to him to win, to a point that’s like unusual for most people. But it’s also this controlled way that he deals with it: ‘I’m gonna work, I’m gonna find a way to get better and I’m gonna win.'”
He even beat Andy Roddick as a youth tennis star
To be fair to the U.S. Open champion, Brees is nearly four years older than Roddick, who was good enough to play up a few levels with the older kids. So the fact that Brees beat him three times when they were both youth tennis standouts in Austin, Texas, probably should come with an asterisk. But Brees was actually good enough to be the top-ranked youth player in the state at one point when he was 12 or 13 years old — though he does not claim he would have been winning major championships if he had stuck to tennis. Brees admitted he used his size and power to his advantage when he played Roddick, and said Roddick finally got him in their last meeting before Brees moved on to other sports and Roddick moved to Florida for more serious training. “I was a little more raw and had a great two-handed backhand. But I was mostly serve and volley, not a groundstroke guy,” Brees recalled. “I tried to overpower guys and charge the net as soon as possible. I got away with that as long as I could. But [Roddick] was fundamentally so good and sound.”
Perhaps Brees and his brother Reid could have made it as doubles stars — that is if they could survive each other. “Some of the people we would play against would complain that me and Drew would be yelling at each other all the time on the court,” Reid recalled. “Neither of us would want to take accountability for anything we would do — we would just turn around and point the finger at our partner. But we were really good doubles partners. We always bickered at each other, but we always got the job done, it seemed like.”
Winning over the Saints’ locker room
As impressive as Brees’ jump-roping display was, Gleason said the moment when Brees truly cemented his leadership came six weeks later.
Gleason: “We were meeting as a team. And as Coach Payton was wrapping up, unplanned and unannounced, Drew said, ‘Hey, Coach, can I talk to the team for a bit without the coaches?’ … He was willing to stand in front of uncertain teammates and set lofty, even outrageous goals, for a team that had gone 3-13 the year before. I remember being nervous for him. Drew listed the characteristics that he saw as vital to achieve the goal he set for us: courage, resilience, poise, discipline, unity, etc. Not only that, as he listed each characteristic, he talked about players in the room who embodied those characteristics. The team was captivated. We had our leader.”
Former Saints receiver Lance Moore also talked about the great first impression he got from Brees that offseason, when he was still just a practice-squad player who had returned after suffering an injury while playing with the NFL Europe league.
Moore: “I’m a little bit nervous, my first day back. And of course Drew Brees is there bright and early over by his locker. And I see him and I’m not necessarily nervous, but I’m just like, ‘Wow, that’s Drew Brees.’ And sure enough he walks over to me at my locker, introduces himself to me and just tells me if there’s anything I ever needed, let him know and he’d help any way he could. So for a young guy to have your Pro Bowl starting quarterback come up to you and just kind of open up the lines of communication, that was awesome for me, that was big. And then I’ve seen him do that so many times over the years, even practice-squad guys that are there in the middle of the week.”
Shabby golf clubs no more
Jason Loerzel, Brees’ close friend and college roommate: “We were roommates for three years — me, Ben [Smith] and Drew in college. And we had a really sweet apartment, it was like a warehouse apartment. And we were really into golf, and would play both inside the apartment and outside the apartment. We’d use little yellow Nerf balls and set up holes that we would take turns creating, like, ‘Bounce it off this wall, go into the bathroom, come out here and end up in a garbage can.’ But being college students, we were poor. So we had like pieced-together golf clubs, like this broken club here and this broken club there. I don’t even think between the three of us we had a full golf set. So when Drew got drafted and sent off to San Diego, I don’t even think it was a week and a half, and Ben and I get two huge packages delivered to the front door. And he had gone to the TaylorMade factory and customized two sets of golf clubs and sent us both a brand new set of golf clubs with a nice note that said, ‘Get rid of those shabby golf clubs.’ So that’s just the type of guy he is.”
Stunt bartender? Let’s just say, he’s no Tom Cruise
Strief: “More of a human side of Drew. He’s so polished image-wise, and he really is like that — it’s not a show. But you almost never see him with his hair down, right? So in 2006, we get a bye in the playoffs and the bye week came during New Year’s Eve. So we were all off, which is really unusual. So it’s 2006, we make the playoffs, it was very exciting times. Now, we were only 10-6 and we weren’t really that good. But we didn’t know that at the time. Drew reserves a big section at the Republic (a trendy night club in New Orleans) — which is in and of itself something Drew would never normally do. And he invites anybody who wants to come. I’m a rookie, I have nowhere to go, and the quarterback’s throwing a party, so I’m going to the party. And he’s got some people there, his brother, Brittany (Drew’s wife), probably 12 to 15 players and girlfriends, wives, whatever. And Drew at some point decides he’s like a stunt bartender — and he’s gonna like show us all of the tricks he can do. Well, he can’t do any of the tricks. And he decides at one point, we have this big bottle of Grey Goose, and Drew has a glass of ice in his left hand, and he’s gonna hold this bottle over his head and he’s gonna pour it into the glass over his head. And the vodka is just running down his arm. Like, he comes up eight inches short. And he’s got this really triumphant smile on his face like, ‘Check this out.’ … But he does in fact let his hair down occasionally.”
Other positions on the court besides point guard, Drew
Robert Meachem, former Saints receiver and high school basketball standout: “I want to say a high school gave him access to a gym (one day during the 2008 offseason, when about 30-plus players spent the day playing pickup basketball). And it was so funny because we had a play where I actually got the ball. I was the quarterback, I was the point guard, and he had to go play another position. And he didn’t like that. You know, he’s used to being in control, so he didn’t like that too much. He had to switch. He realized I was better than he was at basketball at the moment.” Strief and Moore also laughed at the memory of Brees and Meachem debating over who would play point guard — and Strief recalls everyone guarding Brees as if he were inside of a “snow globe” since nobody wanted to hurt the QB. “We were terrified of touching him, because he’s going 100 percent,” Strief said. But Moore gave Brees some credit. “Drew’s skilled, man. I mean, he’s kind of a tweener. I mean he’s not a point guard, but he’s not a big man. He’s kind of a shooting guard type. But he’s got a good stroke.”
He’s ‘just one of Daddy’s friends’
Benjamin Watson, current Saints teammate: “My 7-year-old, when we were here last time in 2015, it was, ‘Mr. Drew.’ You know, ‘This is Mr. Drew, it’s one of Daddy’s teammates.’ Now it’s all the sudden changed. Now it’s like, ‘That’s Drew Brees! Daddy, that’s Drew Brees.’ … But after the games, all the kids are out there running around and Drew’s out there directing ’em. After one of these games this season, there were like five or 10 kids, and he’s lining them up like they’re in a game. And my 3-year-old, he brings her out there and he hands her the ball and she ran in for a touchdown — actually, she might have run the wrong way. But it’s just that type of stuff that he does. He’s very accessible. He’s just one of the guys. He’s just one of Daddy’s friends.” Fellow Saints tight end Josh Hill shared a similar experience of how Brees, who is a father of four himself, is around his 5-year-old son, Cooper. “It’s awesome to have a guy like that that’s played at the level he has for so long just out there playing with the kids,” Hill said. “I never would’ve thought something like that would’ve happened. But it’s special to see.”
Early bird gets the worm
Brees’ first backup quarterback in New Orleans, Jamie Martin, once shared a great story with NOLA.com about how he arrived much earlier than planned on his first day in 2006 because he had moved to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and heard that the fog could cause lengthy traffic delays. “Drew walks in a few minutes later and says, ‘Hey, you get here pretty early, huh?'” Martin recalled. “The next day I get there, and sure enough, Drew’s car is already there in the parking lot.” Martin became the first in a long line of Brees’ backups to realize how competitive he is. The quarterbacks’ elaborate passing challenges (skeet shooting, American Gladiators, targeting moving carts down the field, you name it) have become a highlight of training camp practices. Brees and longtime backup Chase Daniel would even race from drill to drill during practices to see whose toe would touch a designated marker on the field. Competitive as he is, though, Daniel said he loved his experience of learning under Brees when he first entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2009. “He’s one of the best dudes I ever met,” said Daniel, now a backup with the Chicago Bears, though he still trains with Brees and Brees’ trainer Todd Durkin in the offseason. “Some quarterbacks I’ve heard around the league don’t want to give up secrets and stuff like that. But when I was there, he was all-in, and whatever I needed to know he’d tell me. … I always give him credit for really teaching me how to breathe, act, sleep — everything on and off the field about being a quarterback.
See, Dad! ‘I told you it wasn’t Drew Brees’
Loerzel: “We go on couples trips every summer, and (in 2017) we went to Cabo [Mexico] for four or five days. And we’re just kind of relaxing by the pool, hanging out and having a few cocktails. And there’s a croquet set over by the pool. And we decide just because we’re all competitive to set it up and start competing like we always do. And this young kid comes by, and he said, ‘Excuse me, are you Drew Brees?’ And Drew said, ‘Yes, I am Drew Brees.’ And the little kid goes, ‘No. My Dad said you’re Drew Brees and I don’t think you’re Drew Brees.’ Well, the little kid had a football in his hands, so I said, ‘Why don’t you give him the football and run out for a pass?’ So he tossed the football to Drew and the kid ran out for a pass, and Drew threw up this duck. I mean, it was a horrible pass. And it was because the ball was like deflated, and he wasn’t expecting this deflated ball. So the kid runs and grabs his ball after this horrible pass was thrown, and he shouts out, ‘See, Dad! I told you it wasn’t Drew Brees!’ And we always crack up with that with him, we’ll laugh and say, ‘See, Dad! I told you it wasn’t Drew Brees.'”
1-0 as a trial lawyer
Smith: “One summer (in 1999) we went to Texas and spent time with his family at Lake LBJ near Austin. Sports Illustrated was there doing a piece on Drew and the photographer was wanting to get action shots as we were jet skiing in the lake. I got a little close to the boat where she was taking pictures trying to ride the wake, and next thing I know I was getting pulled over by the boat police. They wrote me a ticket for $100, and I was destroyed because that was a hundred dollars that I didn’t have as a college kid. To make things worse, it was Memorial Day weekend, and we were there for only a couple more days before heading back to Purdue, so at that time I thought there was no way to even try to get it overturned. But for some reason the judge was at the courthouse that day and agreed to meet with us. And since both of Drew’s parents were lawyers it was decided that he would represent me. We gave our side of the story to a judge, and he kind of laughed at it — I think he probably knew who Drew was. And he kind of gave us a hard time about it, said, ‘Rules are rules.’ But then he just gave us a warning. I don’t know if Drew was that good as my counsel or if the judge felt sorry for a bunch of college kids, but he let me off with a warning. So, I guess it would be correct in saying that Drew is 1-0 as a trial lawyer.”
Can see with his eyes closed
Keenan McCardell, former Chargers wide receiver: “I got there right after Week 8 of the regular season (in 2004), got traded there. … I remember the first Wednesday that I got there, after practice he said, ‘Keenan, let’s play some catch afterwards.’ [Drew] said, ‘Just stay in front of me.’ It was something like Michael Jordan where he closes his eyes and shoots the free throw. He closed his eyes and I was standing in front of him (10 yards away) and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Just stay there.’ He said, ‘I just want to try to feel where you are.’ He said, ‘You can step to the side and I’m just trying to feel.’ … I started laughing afterwards. I said, ‘Drew, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen somebody close their eyes and throw me the ball and hit me in between the 8 and 7.’ He started laughing. After that, I realized you had somebody special.”
There are no weeks off here
Brandin Cooks, former Saints wide receiver: “We both lived in Del Mar (in the offseason). A long story, but I lived a couple doors down from him — thanks to him, we’ll just say that. And I remember on a bye week us going home. And you know, bye week, you think of like relax and recover, whatnot. But just being on that same page, we went to our back alley and we were playing long toss. We were probably out there for about an hour. And I think what makes him great is how accurate he is. And just thinking about that moment on how specific he was, even in the streets, on where he wanted to put the ball made me realize that this guy takes every little detail into account and that makes him special. And he’s an even better person.”
— ESPN reporters Jeff Dickerson, Michael DiRocco and Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.
How will Matt LaFleur coach Aaron Rodgers? See Ryan, Matt – Green Bay Packers Blog
GREEN BAY, Wis. — There will come a time when Matt LaFleur will have to correct something Aaron Rodgers does. It may be in a meeting room during the early days of the offseason program or on the field during individual spring workouts or in an 11-on-11 drill in a full-blown practice.
And LaFleur can only hope it goes as well as it did with another MVP quarterback he coached.
It was 2015 and LaFleur was the 36-year-old first-year quarterbacks coach of the Atlanta Falcons, where Matt Ryan was about to begin his eighth season as an NFL starter and had three Pro Bowls on his resume.
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“I’ll never forget the first time I corrected him on the field,” LaFleur recalled.
To hear LaFleur tell it, Ryan was slinging passes to receivers on skinny post routes. A few of the throws sailed off target. LaFleur stepped in and said something about Ryan’s balance.
“He didn’t like it too much,” LaFleur continued.
Ryan’s play said differently.
“What was cool about it was for about the next 10 throws, he was ripping the ball,” LaFleur said. “So I let it go for a while, and I’ll never forget I just said, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to tick you off every day.’
“Matt and I have a great relationship. He was incredible to work with. I do sincerely mean this. When you’re dealing with a quarterback, it is a partnership. He and I have stayed in contact to this day. I think we have a great respect to one another. I think I probably learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
And that’s how LaFleur will approach things as Rodgers’ new head coach.
Given all that was made about Rodgers and how difficult he can be to coach, it’s no wonder that Wednesday’s introductory press conference with LaFleur was dominated by questions about how he will make it work with Rodgers.
“Quite honestly the way our team’s structured, we [need] somebody who’s going to be able to work with Aaron and help him play the very best he can play,” Packers president Mark Murphy said. “[That] is going to really help us win.”
It may not be easy for Rodgers at first. Although he has the intellect to match his ability, he will have to learn a new offensive system after playing in Mike McCarthy’s offense for 13 years. Yet the part of Rodgers that loves a challenge should enjoy that.
There’s also the fact that it’s an offense Rodgers spoke admiringly of during the season. In the week leading up to the Packers’ game against the Rams, where LaFleur served as the offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in 2017, Rodgers called one it of the “fun offenses that you try to steal plays from or enjoy watching, obviously, what Sean has done and what Andy [Reid] is doing in Kansas City.
“For years we have been a team that people have stolen a lot of plays from.”
LaFleur left the Falcons to be an offensive coordinator with the Rams, but not before Ryan won the NFL MVP in 2016. He then left the Rams to be a play-calling coordinator for the Titans last season — a move Murphy admired.
“It was a risk for him to leave L.A. and go to Tennessee,” Murphy said. “But he did it because he knew it would help him become a head coach, to take on the play-calling responsibilities. Quite honestly, if he had stayed in L.A. with the kind of year they had this year, he’d be the hot candidate. He’s be flying all over the country talking to everybody. But I think the experience he had in Tennessee, there’s no doubt that made him a better coach, and we think he’s absolutely ready to be a head coach.”
And he’s ready to integrate Rodgers into what he called “our system.”
“The foundation, it goes back to Mike Shanahan,” LaFleur said.
One version of it is being run by Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers, another by McVay with the Rams and now by LaFleur in Green Bay. Shanahan and McVay run offenses that have been praised for being innovative. To LaFleur, that means trying to “stay one step ahead of the game because if you stay stagnant and you don’t evolve, I think people catch up to you.”
“We like to say plays that start off looking the same but are different, plays that play off of plays,” he said later. “It lessens the predictability of what you’re trying to do, and it keeps a defense more off-balance. And if there’s one thing I can say in regards to a guy like Aaron, if you give Aaron time and you are unpredictable, he’s going to excel, because we all know the talent he has. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.”
Lucky moves that shaped all eight NFL playoff rosters
Every single team to win a Super Bowl has needed to get lucky along the way. A key fumble bounced into their hands. A dangerous would-be opponent was eliminated before they could ever match up. A star player narrowly avoided an injury. Luck might be the residue of design, but in the NFL, your luck also can be a product of someone else’s subpar design.
Each of the eight remaining playoff teams made brilliant draft picks, found smart coaches, and devoted hours upon hours to scouting the right talent for their roster. They also got lucky. The hands of fate conspired to open up opportunities for organizations to look very smart after the fact. In many cases, the moves didn’t even involve a conscious decision from the executives and owners who proudly stand behind their playoff teams today. Fortuitous timing and mistakes from other teams were enough to help build some of the best teams in football.
Let’s run through the ways the eight remaining Super Bowl contenders were built by accident. I’ll start in the AFC, where the Patriots’ dynasty was built upon a move nearly 20 years old …
March 12, 1999: The Rams sign away LB Todd Collins from the Patriots.
What happened next: The Patriots get a compensatory pick and use it on QB Tom Brady.
Bill Belichick might have drafted Brady, but the draft pick the Patriots used to select Brady actually made its way to New England while Belichick was still defensive coordinator of the Jets. When I analyzed Belichick’s propensity for accumulating draft picks back in 2015, I found that the Pats had cap trouble under Pete Carroll’s administration during the 1999 offseason and had to let several starters leave in free agency. They also simultaneously signed several players and were awarded four compensatory picks in the 2000 draft: a fourth-rounder, two sixth-rounders and a seventh-round selection.
By virtue of the various contracts handed out to the Patriots who left, we can narrow down the two sixth-rounders to defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and linebacker Todd Collins, who shares a name with a longtime backup quarterback. I’m going to guess that Collins, who was signed by the Rams to a four-year deal, was the free-agent loss who handed the Patriots the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. The Patriots famously debated between drafting Brady and Louisiana Tech product Tim Rattay, who would eventually go to the 49ers.
You know what happened next for Brady, who is unquestionably the best draft pick in league history. Collins won a ring with the Rams but was out of football by 2001, the year Brady took over as Patriots starter for an injured Drew Bledsoe and led New England to the Super Bowl, where it beat those very same Rams. Patriots fans might already feel like Carroll handed them one Super Bowl, but that might be selling short the history of how the Patriots ended up with Brady.
March 1, 2017: The Bills decline to place the franchise tag on CB Stephon Gilmore.
What happened next: Gilmore signs with the Patriots.
March 2017 was a weird period for the Bills, who had hired Sean McDermott to replace Rex Ryan. Doug Whaley was still the team’s general manager, but it’s hard to believe he had much say in personnel decisions, given that the Bills fired Whaley immediately after the 2017 draft and replaced him with Panthers executive Brandon Beane.
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The key free agent for the Bills was Gilmore. While the 2012 first-round pick had struggled with consistency in Buffalo, he finished his fifth year in Western New York by picking off five passes and making his first Pro Bowl appearance. It was a bit of a surprise when the Bills declined to retain Gilmore’s rights with the franchise tag, which would have come in at $14.2 million. Had they done so, it seems likely that Buffalo would have eventually come to terms with the South Carolina product on a contract extension.
Instead, Gilmore went into free agency. Amid reported interest from the Bears, Gilmore instead signed with the Patriots on a five-year, $65 million deal that paid the cornerback just under $42 million over its first three seasons. The move ensured that the Patriots wouldn’t re-sign fellow free agent Logan Ryan and put the writing on the wall for 2018 free agent Malcolm Butler, who was frozen out during the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles. Gilmore got off to a slow start in Foxborough, but he has emerged as one of the best corners in football and was just named a first-team All-Pro.
Aug. 31, 2003: The Chargers elect to go with two quarterbacks and cut Seth Burford and Cleo Lemon.
What happened next: TE Antonio Gates makes the 53-man roster.
The Chargers first signed Gates as an undrafted free agent in the hours after the 2003 draft, as part of a rookie free agent class that included future NFL veterans Kris Dielman (a defensive tackle who would eventually convert to guard), Stephen Cooper, Jacques Cesaire and Kassim Osgood. It’s one of the best undrafted free agent classes in league history, and Gates is the most notable contributor.
The odds were against him making the roster, given that the Kent State basketball star hadn’t even played college football. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gates caught only three passes for 62 yards during the preseason, and in most cases, teams tend to try to stash athletes like this on the practice squad if they can get away with it. The Chargers read the situation differently. They decided to keep four tight ends on their roster, clearing out room by cutting both of their third-string quarterback options behind Doug Flutie and Drew Brees.
Gates started the season buried on the depth chart behind starter Justin Peelle, but after the Chargers started 0-4 they began to focus on younger talent and inserted Gates into the starting lineup. Gates was relatively anonymous and lost the starting job for a week before breaking out with a 117-yard game against the Packers in Week 15. He had two touchdowns on 24 catches as a rookie; the following year, Gates would score 13 times as the Chargers made an unexpected return to the postseason. He has been around ever since.
March 2016: The Browns decide QB Carson Wentz isn’t worth the second overall pick and start shopping their selection.
What happened next: The Eagles trade up to get Wentz, and the Chargers draft DE Joey Bosa with the third overall pick.
It doesn’t seem quite as painful after the Browns eventually landed their quarterback of the future with Baker Mayfield, but one of the first acts of the Sashi Brown regime in Cleveland was to evaluate Wentz as a long-term quarterback. The brain trust, which included former Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta and coach Hue Jackson, eventually decided that Wentz wasn’t worth the No. 2 pick. (Jackson has claimed he wanted to take Wentz second, but NFL.com’s Mike Silver suggested Hue felt otherwise in 2016.)
The Browns traded down with the Eagles, who grabbed the North Dakota State star and won the Super Bowl two years later. Had the Browns stayed put, they might have very well pursued Bosa, who plays a premium position and would have filled a need for a team that took Myles Garrett with the first overall pick the following year. Bosa reportedly had a promise the Chargers would take him with the third overall pick, which might be why he wore sweatpants to his pre-draft visit with the Browns. The Browns ended up drafting since-cut wideout Corey Coleman with the No. 15 pick, while the Chargers found a star pass-rusher.
June 22, 2017: The Chiefs part ways with general manager John Dorsey.
What happened next: With Chris Ballard in Indianapolis, Kansas City promotes Brett Veach to GM.
In this case, it’s more about what happened first. After interviewing with the Buccaneers, Bears and Titans before the 2016 season, Ballard eventually found the right job when he took over as Colts general manager in January 2017. He inherited a roster bereft of impact draft picks and loaded with subpar veterans, but within two years Ballard managed to clear out the deadwood and build a playoff team. After an excellent 2018 draft, the Colts are heading into the offseason with a talented young core and more than $122 million in cap space.
It could have gone very differently, though, if the Chiefs had acted earlier. Ownership parted ways with Dorsey at a strange time in the NFL calendar and after a sustained run of success for the organization. The move came just after Andy Reid was given a contract extension, while reports afterward suggested that communication and management issues were at the core of Dorsey’s problems.
What if the Chiefs had decided to fire Dorsey after they were eliminated from the 2016 postseason, or allowed him to leave for a similar job with the Packers? They lost to the Steelers on Jan. 15, two weeks before Ballard was hired by the Colts. Had they fired Dorsey, the most obvious candidate to take over as general manager would have been Ballard. Instead, with Ballard out of the organization, the Chiefs promoted Veach, the co-director of player personnel, to the role.
The Chiefs are doing just fine with Veach at the helm, but where would Indy be without Ballard? Their other candidates haven’t graduated to bigger roles. Eliot Wolf missed out on the Packers GM job and went to work under Dorsey in Cleveland. Vikings assistant general manager George Paton got his name out as a possible candidate in December but hasn’t been the subject of much chatter for a GM job this offseason. Internal candidate Jimmy Raye left to go work for the Lions, while Seahawks executive Trent Kirchner was the subject of a midgame tirade from Doug Baldwin.
March 15, 2018: QB Kirk Cousins turns down a bigger deal from the Jets to sign with the Vikings.
What happened next: The Jets trade up with the Colts.
Could you turn down $6 million in guaranteed money? That’s exactly what Kirk Cousins did during free agency this season. According to Cousins, the Jets came in at the beginning of the free-agent period with a three-year, $90 million fully guaranteed offer, which was a significant leap from the three-year, $75 million deal proposed by the Vikings. Minnesota eventually got to three years and $84 million, which was enough to convince Cousins to head to Minneapolis.
When the Jets missed out on Cousins, their next move was to pursue one of the draft’s top quarterbacks. To get a good shot at nabbing one, the Jets were forced to move from the sixth pick to the second overall selection, which cost New York their own first-round pick and three second-round selections. The Jets chose Sam Darnold, and after a hot end to the season, they’re understandably excited about what Darnold might do in a Jets uniform.
The Colts aren’t upset about trading down, either. They’ve managed to turn the second pick into some significant assets. Indy used the No. 6 pick on guard Quenton Nelson, who was a first-team All-Pro in his rookie season. They turned one of the Jets’ second-rounders into Braden Smith, who started 13 games and appears to be Indy’s right tackle of the future. They traded another to the Eagles for two picks, with Kemoko Turay and Jordan Wilkins each showing promise in rotational roles during their rookie campaigns. They also have the Jets’ second-rounder in 2019 coming their way, and after a dismal campaign from Gang Green, the Colts will be inheriting the 34th overall selection.
April 27, 2017: The Bills decide Patrick Mahomes isn’t a franchise quarterback.
What happened next: They trade their first-round pick to the Chiefs, who do.
One of the other elements to that tumultuous 2017 offseason for the Bills is that they passed up the chance to draft this season’s likely MVP. The Bills were getting by with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, although they already had forced the former Ravens backup to take a $10 million pay cut on his extension in March. It’s unclear how much say different parties had in Buffalo’s 2017 draft, but given that Whaley had completed two big trades up in moves for Sammy Watkins and Reggie Ragland while trading down only once (and that by a mere two spots), it didn’t seem like Whaley was the one who made the call on Buffalo trading out of the 10th overall pick.
If the Bills had evaluated Mahomes and thought he could end up looking anything like the guy who has ripped apart the NFL this season, they obviously would have taken him with their first-round pick. Instead, they sent the 10th selection to the Chiefs for the 27th and 91st selections, along with Kansas City’s 2018 first-round pick, which ended up as the 22nd pick. The Bills drafted star cornerback Tre’Davious White with Kansas City’s 2017 first-rounder, and then used the other two picks in trades that eventually netted them Zay Jones and Tremaine Edmunds. Sean McDermott undoubtedly loves his two defensive building blocks, and the Bills believe that Josh Allen, their other first-rounder in 2018, can turn into a viable starter, but they would undoubtedly trade all three for Mahomes in a heartbeat.
March 2016: The Browns decide to amass compensatory draft picks by sitting out free agency and letting their veteran free agents leave.
What happened next: The Chiefs sign OT Mitchell Schwartz.
With the Browns quite clearly tanking to amass as many draft picks as possible, one of DePodesta and Brown’s tactics during their first offseason in charge of the organization was to generate draft capital by letting the unrestricted free agents from the prior regime leave. The Browns saw six veteran free agents depart while signing just one who counted against the compensatory formula, Jets linebacker Demario Davis.
Several of the moves made sense. The previous administration had held Alex Mack in town against his will when the Jaguars signed the star center to an offer sheet, and when Mack voided the final three years of his contract, he probably wasn’t going to stay in Cleveland. Players such as Tashaun Gipson and Travis Benjamin were talented but had only one year of significant production on their respective résumés.
The exception was Schwartz, who had rounded into one of the league’s finer right tackles. If there was a place where it made sense for the Browns to spend money as they rebuilt their roster, it would be on the offensive line, which would be in charge of protecting the latest quarterback of the future. Instead, the organization yanked a $7.5 million per year offer off the table and let him hit free agency.
Schwartz landed with the Chiefs on a five-year, $33 million deal, which has to be one of the biggest bargains for a non-rookie in all of football. The 29-year-old has allowed only 2.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons, per Stats LLC, and while the Pro Bowl tends to reward left tackles, Schwartz was named as the first-team All-Pro at right tackle this season. After their right tackle situation was a mess in 2017, meanwhile, the Browns gave Steelers swing tackle Chris Hubbard a five-year, $36.5 million deal to take over on the right side. He allowed 8.5 sacks in his first season with the Browns.
Jan. 12, 2006: The Packers hire Mike McCarthy as coach.
What happened next: Sean Payton settles for the Saints job.
Although he has grown to become an icon in New Orleans, Payton admitted early this year that he initially had no interest in moving to New Orleans and taking over the Saints, owing to concerns over attracting a staff to the city after Hurricane Katrina. Payton told Graham Bensinger that he was “checked out” during his visit with general manager Mickey Loomis and wanted to take over as coach of the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers made their move first, choosing to hire McCarthy. Payton told Bensinger that he heard the news from Ted Thompson and threw his phone into his pillow. Six days later, the Saints hired Payton away from the Cowboys. Both coaches won Super Bowls with their respective franchises, so it’s hard to argue that things didn’t work out well for all involved.
The list of other candidates for the Saints isn’t exactly inspiring with the benefit of hindsight. None of the other interviewees are still active in the NFL. Mike Martz spent several more years as an offensive coordinator but was out of the league after 2011. Mike Sherman went to Texas A&M and then spent two years as Dolphins offensive coordinator, but he has been out of the NFL for five years. Maurice Carthon, a fellow Bill Parcells coach, has been out of the league since 2012. Then-Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson lasted the longest, but he was let go by the Bills when they fired Rex Ryan after the 2016 season. The Saints chose wisely.
April 27, 2017: The Chiefs trade up and use the 10th overall pick on QB Patrick Mahomes.
What happened next: The Saints draft CB Marshon Lattimore with the next pick.
I’ve already covered the Drew Brees alternate histories earlier this season, so I won’t go through them again. Instead, let’s talk about what might have happened if the 2017 draft had gone slightly differently.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bills didn’t have Mahomes graded as a franchise quarterback. If they had stayed put, they would have taken a player at another position. The Bills ended up drafting a corner with Kansas City’s first-round pick, and while Tre’Davious White has turned out to be a star, Lattimore was generally considered to be a better prospect coming into the draft and has utterly transformed the New Orleans defense since arriving. It’s hardly out of the question to think the Bills would have taken Lattimore at 10.
If they had drafted Lattimore, the Saints would have gone in an entirely different direction. Payton has publicly suggested that the Saints had Lattimore and Mahomes in the same tier for the draft, and if another team had drafted Lattimore before the Saints came up, they would have taken Mahomes as the successor to Brees. (It’s fair to wonder whether Payton is just saying that he preferred Lattimore to protect the guy he actually ended up drafting, but let’s take his comment at face value.)
Swapping Lattimore for Mahomes is a fascinating proposition. The Saints would certainly be better off in the long term with a franchise quarterback to take over for Brees, but Lattimore is a valuable player and has helped dramatically increase the team’s chances of winning the Super Bowl during the final years of the Brees era. Would the Saints have signed Brees to a new contract this March if Mahomes were already on the roster? Would their defense be anywhere near as effective without Lattimore? The alternate universe where the Saints end up with Mahomes is fascinating, but I also suspect the Saints are quite happy with how things turned out.
What happened next: Dallas settles for QB Dak Prescott.
It’s better to be lucky than good, and in the case of the 2016 draft, Jerry Jones was one lucky duck. While the Cowboys ended up finding their franchise quarterback in Prescott, the Cowboys ended up with their signal-caller only after failing to nab the two quarterbacks they preferred.
First, Jones tried to trade up and grab Memphis quarterback Lynch at the end of the first round. Jones dreamed about the toolsy Lynch developing behind Tony Romo before taking over as the Cowboys starter, but the Seahawks preferred Denver’s offer and moved down five spots for a third-round pick. John Elway then pipped Jones to Lynch, while the Cowboys used the picks they were planning to trade for Lynch on Jaylon Smith and Maliek Collins.
On Day 3, the Cowboys were happy to settle for a second option in Michigan State passer Cook, who was still on the board when the draft reached pick No. 100. The Cowboys just had to wait out one more selection to grab the 6-foot-4 Cook, but when they didn’t make the Browns a good enough offer, the Raiders traded up to the 100th selection and nabbed Cook ahead of the Cowboys. Dallas didn’t even want Prescott all that desperately, given that they then used the 101st pick on since-cut defensive end Charles Tapper before grabbing Prescott with the 135th selection.
Three years later, you get the feeling that the original scouting reports on Cook and Lynch might have gone missing from the Cowboys’ facility. Both Cowboys targets were cut by their original teams this offseason, with the Broncos preferring Mr. Irrelevant selection Chad Kelly to Lynch. Injuries led Cook to start the one playoff game of the Jack Del Rio era in Oakland, but Cook threw three interceptions in what might go down as his lone professional start. He signed a future/reserve contract with the Lions on New Year’s Day, and Lynch is a free agent. Prescott will make his third playoff start this weekend.
Jan. 6, 2018: The Raiders hire Jon Gruden as coach, and quietly hand him personnel control.
This isn’t exactly ancient history, but would the Cowboys even be in the postseason if the Raiders hadn’t decided to blow things up last winter? Del Rio was only one year removed from a 12-4 season and had a 25-23 record in Oakland when Mark Davis decided to fire his coach and reduce general manager Reggie McKenzie’s influence, replacing both with Gruden on that legendary 10-year, $100 million deal. If the Raiders had simply stayed the course and made minor changes to the staff, it’s likely that McKenzie would have locked up Mack with an extension and would be preparing to do the same with Cooper this offseason.
Instead, after trading Mack to the Bears, Gruden sent his No. 1 wideout to the Cowboys for a first-round pick. The former Alabama star has helped revitalize a flagging Dallas offense and given Prescott some sorely needed help at receiver. Prescott has posted a passer rating of 104.6 with Cooper in the lineup, up 17.8 points from the quarterback’s mark this season without Cooper on the field. Prescott roughly has been Deshaun Watson with Cooper and Alex Smith without him. Virtually nobody liked the Cooper trade when it happened, but as wrong as Jones was about Lynch and Cook, he was absolutely right about trading for Cooper.
Spring 2016: John Elway declines to give Wade Phillips a raise and an extension.
What happened next: Phillips finished the final year of his deal in Denver before leaving for Los Angeles.
If anyone had the ability to call their own shot after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, it should have been Phillips. The legendary defensive coordinator had just led the league’s top defense by DVOA to a Super Bowl win on a team that had the remnants of Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler at quarterback. Denver’s playoff run had seen it force seven takeaways in three games while shutting down an injured Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and league MVP Cam Newton.
After the win, Phillips reportedly asked Elway for a contract extension and a raise that would have made Phillips the highest-paid defensive coordinator in football “by a substantial margin.” Elway told Phillips he could have one or the other, but not both. Phillips got a raise, but he left after the following season to take over the Rams’ defense. The Broncos promoted Joe Woods, who seems likely to leave the organization after Denver hired Vic Fangio this week.
Phillips immediately improved the Rams, and while Sean McVay added a new quarterback and all kinds of offensive help, Phillips did it really without making any major additions to the roster. The same Rams defense that ranked 15th in DVOA in 2016, jumped to sixth in 2017, and while they fell to 19th amid changes this season, would it shock anyone if Phillips had the Rams’ D playing their best in January?
Jan. 9, 2017: Sean McVay aces his coaching interview … with the 49ers.
What happened next: The Rams hired McVay first.
It all could have been very different in the NFC West. While everyone wants to hire the next McVay now, nobody wanted to hire the first McVay before the 2017 offseason. Rams fans who rightfully wanted Jeff Fisher to be fired after the 2015 season couldn’t have realized it at the time, but if the Rams had fired Fisher after his fourth consecutive losing season, they probably wouldn’t have ended up with McVay, who had just finished his second season as Washington’s offensive coordinator and wasn’t yet on the head-coaching radar.
The Cowboys’ offense with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has found its rhythm, and the Rams’ defense led by Aaron Donald might not be able to disrupt them.
The Rams were the first team to interview McVay in January 2017, but they were quickly followed by the 49ers, who would have represented a bit of a fairytale story, given that McVay’s grandfather was John McVay, who served as a key personnel executive with the Niners through two decades of their glory years. The younger McVay was “off the charts” in his interview with the 49ers, which led the organization to link up McVay with possible general managerial candidates like Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst to discuss strategy.
Before the Niners could make their move, though, the Rams pounced. Two days after the 49ers interviewed McVay, the Rams brought him in for a second interview. The following afternoon, they hired McVay as their coach. The Niners eventually landed on the duo of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and while injuries gave the 49ers fits in 2018, McVay had more wins in his first season (11) than the 49ers and Shanahan have racked up over their first two campaigns (10). The only coach who might be considered more desirable than McVay is Bill Belichick. The Rams got their hire right.
Jan. 2, 2015: The Eagles “promote” Howie Roseman in lieu of firing their general manager.
What happened next: Chip Kelly demonstrates the Peter Principle.
Lots of NFL teams go through power struggles. Most times, the guy who loses the battle has to find a new organization. That wasn’t really the case in Philadelphia when Kelly consolidated power after his second consecutive 10-6 season. After GM Roseman fired Vice President of Player Personnel Tom Gamble, Kelly won the ensuing battle for personnel control and shunted aside Roseman. Amid rumors that the deposed executive talked to the Jets about their vacancy at GM, Roseman was handed a contract extension to stick around in Philadelphia as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, but he was essentially banned from the front office. Kelly took over as general manager and proceeded to rebuild the roster in his image.
That didn’t go well. The Eagles traded Nick Foles as part of a package for Sam Bradford, shipped LeSean McCoy to the Bills, signed DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell to big-money contracts, cut veteran offensive linemen Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, and got little from a draft class highlighted by Nelson Agholor and Eric Rowe. The Eagles went 6-9 before firing Kelly and restoring personnel control back to Roseman.
Roseman moved on from most of Kelly’s mistakes, traded up for Carson Wentz, signed Foles and hired Doug Pederson. Two years later, the Eagles were Super Bowl champions. Had the Eagles fired Roseman or encouraged him to find new employment, their rebuild probably wouldn’t have gone as smoothly.
Aug. 3, 2016: Foles decides against retiring and signs with the Chiefs.
What happened next: Foles goes on a special run in Philly.
You’re probably familiar with this last one, given that it was widely reported last February. Foles told the media that he had considered retiring after being cut by the Rams in 2016, spending a week debating his options with his wife and going fly-fishing with his brother-in-law. When Foles came back and prayed on the matter, he decided to return to football and insisted on playing for former coach Andy Reid.
The story sort of breaks down there. Foles spent one year as the backup in Kansas City behind Alex Smith before signing a two-year, $11 million deal with the Eagles to play under former Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson. He won the Super Bowl in Year 1 and just pocketed a $1 million bonus after Cody Parkey‘s potential winning field goal attempt was partially blocked by Treyvon Hester in Chicago. He’ll probably be franchised after the season and traded for a draft pick, although it seems likely that the playoff hero won’t be suiting up for Reid with the Chiefs.
Would Foles actually have retired? It’s tough to say. Twenty-seven-year-old quarterbacks with NFL-caliber skills generally don’t retire, but spending a season under Jeff Fisher can take a lot out of a man. Foles had also pocketed a $6 million roster bonus for the 2016 season before being released and had made more than $15 million over his pro career, so the Arizona product wasn’t strapped for cash. I think Foles probably would have made his way back to the NFL one way or another, but the path he took sent him to Super Bowl glory via Philadelphia’s former coach and that coach’s protege.
Los Angeles Chargers signing Nick Rose to handle kickoff duties
The move could help a kicking game that allowed the most returns in the NFL during the regular season.
Chargers kicker Mike Badgley had a touchback on only 9 of his 54 kickoffs during the 2018 regular season. That 16.7 percent rate was the worst in the NFL among players with at least 10 kickoffs in 2018.
The Chargers did hold returners to 21.7 yards per kickoff return in the regular season, the eighth-best rate in the league.
Rose kicked in two games for the Chargers at the end of the 2017 season, making 1 of 3 field goals and 5 of 6 extra points. He also played in eight games for the Washington Redskins as an injury replacement for Dustin Hopkins.
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