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Oakland Raiders vs. San Diego Chargers - October 31, 2004 at Qualcomm Stadium. Oak 14 vs. SD 42 :: D.Brees pass to A.Gates to OAK 21 for 29 yards (N.Asomugha).
Looking Back at Drew Brees’s Charger Days
In this exclusive, in-depth profile, we take a look back at Drew Brees’s Charger days — the start of what would become an incredible Hall of Fame NFL career.
Oct 06, 2021
Photographs By Mike Nowak

Prior to Drew Brees's first NFL season in the broadcast booth and no longer behind center, he visited the team that drafted him back in 2001: the Chargers. This story ran following Drew Brees's Chargers Training Camp visit on August 19, 2021. All quotes are from an interview with Brees that day.

Drew Brees's career began like many great quarterbacks: a high school state championship (in Texas, nonetheless), and a successful college career at a Big Ten school, Purdue. At 22, he was selected by the Chargers as the first pick of the second round — the second overall quarterback to come off the board that year behind Michael Vick.

Brees was with the Chargers for five seasons, playing backup to Doug Flutie his rookie season before taking over as the starter in 2002. By 2004, Brees had led the Chargers to a 12-4 record while putting the NFL on notice by posting the third best quarterback rating (QBR) that season behind league MVP Peyton Manning and passing leader Daunte Culpepper.

Brees had arrived.

In an exclusive interview with the the team, Brees recently opened up about what it was like to spend his formative football years in a Chargers' uniform — his journey, his bond with his teammates and the leaders that influenced his growth as a player and brought out his inner greatness.

The Second QB Selection of the 2001 NFL Draft 

In 2001, the Chargers were in the middle of a five-year playoff drought and in search of a long-term solution at quarterback. Heading into the draft that year, Head Coach Mike Riley and General Manager John Butler believed Brees was the guy for the job.

"It was a dream come true," Brees said about being drafted by the Chargers.

"I think you start off as a young, immature college player thinking, 'Well, my goal is just to get drafted as high as possible;' I think the competitor in you says that. But what I grew to realize — through the advice of many — was it's not how high you get drafted, it's about going to the right team, being in the right situation — the right environment that's going to put you in the best position to grow and develop and succeed and I absolutely feel like San Diego was that place for me."

The Chargers were patient, and Brees was ultimately selected behind Chargers' Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was taken fifth overall. Brees and Tomlinson both played high school football in Texas, and were both Heisman finalists in 2000 during their senior years at Purdue and Texas Christian University (TCU), respectively.

"LT and I go back to high school," Brees said. "We played on the same high school all-star team together. We were at the Heisman together, so LT and I kind of had this vision of maybe ending up on the same team. And when it happened it was like, 'Wow, here we go." 

And while having Tomlinson in the backfield was certainly somewhat of a dream come true for Brees, his bond with Tomlinson runs deeper than football; it's a friendship that's going strong more than two decades later. 

"It's awesome. I mean, very rarely do you get a chance to be around a guy who — I think — just epitomizes everything you would want in a teammate, in a player, in a person, and that's Ladainian Tomlinson," Brees said. "I love that here we are 20 years later…. almost 25 years…. since we were playing in a Texas high school football North-South All-Star game together — it's just amazing to see what we've both been able to experience and accomplish in that time."

Taking Over as the Chargers' Starting QB

Drew Brees's Charger career started like most quarterbacks during that era of football, waiting patiently for their opportunity. In Brees's case he was the backup for veteran Doug Flutie, who was also in his first season with the Chargers.

Brees's only appearance during his rookie season was November 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Entering the game to relieve Flutie, Brees finished with 221 passing yards and threw his first career touchdown — a 20-yard pass to tight end Freddie Jones.

The following season, Brees was named the starter and finally got the chance to prove himself as an NFL quarterback. The Chargers improved to 8–8 that season, up from a 5–11 record in 2001.

"There was a little bit of an adjustment period in '03," Brees said. "But then '04 rolled around and it was like, 'Alright, big chip on our shoulder; we've been through some tough times, but we know what it takes, right? We know what great leadership looks like and we know how to turn this thing around.'"

That "chip" set the tone for what turned out to be an incredible season not only for the Chargers as a team, but for Brees as a quarterback as well.

Making the Jump To a Top-three QB in the League

In Drew Brees's time with the Chargers, the 2004 season is the one that stands out most.

In what is now considered his breakout season, Brees posted career-high numbers while leading the Chargers to an AFC West title. 

In 15 games, Brees threw for 3,159 yards, with 27 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.

He completed over 65 percent of his passes and ended the season with a QBR of 104.8, good enough for third best in a league that was not lacking in talent at the quarterback position, to say the least.

Only Peyton Manning — who had thrown a record-breaking 49 touchdown passes — and Daunte Culpepper finished in front of Brees. And behind him was Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre and Tom Brady. Brees was also named the 2004 NFL Comeback Player of the Year and was selected to the first of many Pro Bowls.

Drew Brees's Charger Stats: 2001–2005

Drew Brees was on the Chargers for five seasons. In 59 games, he threw for a total of 12,348 yards, 80 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. He finished with an overall quarterback rating of 84.9.

Below are Drew Brees's stats with the Chargers from 2001–2005:

Table inside Article
2001 1 15 27 55.6 221 8.2 221 1 0 94.8
2002 16 320 526 60.8 3284 6.2 205.3 17 16 76.9
2003 11 205 356 57.6 2108 5.9 191.6 11 15 67.5
2004* 15 262 400 65.5 3159 8.5 210.6 27 7 104.8
2005 16 323 500 64.6 3576 7.2 223.5 24 15 89.2
*2004 was the season Brees was selected to the Pro Bowl and won Comeback Player of the Year

Best Stories From Drew Brees While On the Chargers

The first few years of any young quarterback's career are important. Drew Brees's Charger career was no different. Brees attributes his development and growth to his teammates and his coaches.

"….Being around [former offensive coordinator] Norv Turner early on and Mike Riley, but really the leadership on that team with Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, Lorenzo Neal — just so many veteran guys that had been around so long [and] played a ton of football," Brees said. "But they knew how to work, they knew how to prepare — they were just great leaders. That had a big influence on me."

But it wasn't just about football for Brees, who also noted his personal relationships were just as special to his development — not just as a player, but as a person. When he was drafted by the Chargers in 2001, Brees found something that even the most elite rosters struggle to find: camaraderie.

Their lives and aspirations off the field brought them together as a team and a family.

"We really created a team that cared about each other, you know?" Brees said. "And I think, you look at the guys that we drafted — that '01, '02 draft class [were] guys that kind of had that underdog mentality, like, 'Man, we've been brought onto a 1-15 team.'

"And so there was a big sense of responsibility to be part of the solution that's going to turn this around. So you just find yourself connecting with guys beyond just the football field, especially since so many of us were in similar stages in our life, right? We're starting to get married, thinking about starting families, wanting to get active in the communities, so you just find yourself doing a lot of things together, supporting each other….You're in the same phase of life." 

During his recent visit to a Chargers' training camp practice, Brees even told the story of his favorite play in a Charger uniform. It was in one of his first big wins against the Raiders, who went on to the Super Bowl in 2002.

It was an away game, at the Black Hole, and the Chargers had forced the game into overtime. The first play in overtime was a run play that Brees had to check to an option due to the defense's formation.

"I look who the in-man on the line of scrimmage is, and it's Bill Romanowski. So I'm like, 'Great, I'm going to option pitch off Bill Romanowski,'" Brees said. "Of course, he goes to take my head off; I pitch the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson and he goes for about 20. Next play, big play to Tim Dwight. Next play, hand off on — I think we called it 50 power, which was Marty Schottenheimer's signature run play….

"We run power to LaDainian Tomlinson; he takes it 20 yards into the endzone for a touchdown, so we win in overtime, and everyone in the Black Hole is throwing batteries, and beer, and whatever else they could find at LT, and he just sits in the end zone [with his arms stretched out]…." That was a great moment, I'll remember that — trying not to get hit [by] batteries."

Drew Brees's All-time Stats and Records

After his time with the Chargers ended, Brees went on to play another 15 seasons with the New Orleans Saints. In his 20 seasons as an NFL quarterback, Brees put together what is considered one of the greatest careers of all time. He holds several records and his all-time numbers are spectacular.

Below are his all-time stats from 2001–2020:

Table inside Article
287 7,142* 10,551 67.7* 80,358* 7.6 280 571 243 98.7

As far as records go, Brees owns the following NFL passing records:

  • Most career passing yards (80,358)
  • Most career pass completions (7,142)
  • Highest completion percentages among passers with at least 2,000 attempts (67.7 percent)
  • Most pass competitions in a season (471 in 2016)
  • Highest completion percentage in a season (74.4 percent in 2018)

Brees holds several in-game records as well, including highest completion percentage in a game and most touchdown passes in a game, although he's tied with seven other quarterbacks for that record.

Retirement Endeavors and Activities

In March 2021, after a long and successful professional NFL career that began with the Chargers back in 2001, Drew Brees announced the 2020 season would be his last. But he's not leaving the game entirely; he's joining NBC Sports as an NFL studio analyst and a game analyst for Notre Dame college football broadcasts.

He said this offseason went by faster than when he was playing but that he's very much enjoying the less demanding schedule of being a professional athlete.

"There was so much time with my family and kids," Brees said. "I travelled a ton. I would say this: it totally lacked structure. That is the one thing that football gives you, and it's the one thing you kind of hear from guys that you don't really experience for yourself until retirement. Football provides daily habits and daily routine, and so it's been a bit of a free-for-all, but I would say I'm really loving it."

Brees explained that while it will be much different in the studio than on the field, it will be a new way for him to experience and appreciate the game he's spent more than half his life playing. 

"I get to show my love and passion for the game in a different way, which I'm excited about," he said." It's going to be a big learning curve with the whole broadcasting and in-studio stuff, but I'm excited about it."

He's envisioning his commentary contributing to both fans' enjoyment and knowledge of the game. And while Brees acknowledged there are certain elements you can pick and choose to develop your own style as a commentator, he noted the importance of being yourself. 

For Brees, that means giving fans an idea of what to expect on every down.

"I think what fans seem to enjoy is when you can give them a glimpse inside the huddle — when you can give them a glimpse inside the quarterback's mind, or the defensive coordinator's mind, or the OC's mind, or 'Here's what we're thinking in this situation,'" Brees said. "That's where I find that you want the fan to be on the edge of their seat, and be able to maybe anticipate what's coming. I just think you appreciate the game on a whole different level when you're able to have that articulated to you while it's happening."

Outside of spending time with his family and his new role as an NBC Sports analyst, Brees runs The Brees Dream Foundation, a foundation with a mission focused on "improving the quality of life for cancer patients, and providing care, education and opportunities for children and families in need." The Brees Dream Foundations has contributed more than $45 million to charitable causes globally since its inception.

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