When the Chargers acquired Philip Rivers on a draft-day deal in 2004, the organization anointed him their quarterback of the future. But standing in the way was Drew Brees, the second-round pick from three years earlier who wasn’t quite ready to pass the torch.
Someday, the two men will share a space in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But 14 years ago, they were two young players sharing another room — the Chargers’ quarterback room — and trying to figure how to be quarterbacks in the NFL.
From the start, the situation was awkward.
How could it not be?
Brees was the incumbent, and teams typically don’t bring in first-round quarterbacks to hold clipboards.
“It was a tough set of circumstances obviously because they drafted him in 2004 to basically take my job, right?” Brees said. “So I think everyone always tried to kind of pit us against each other.”
And it was a competition, a serious one, though both players understood the betterment of the team required the two to work together. From the start, both realized the other was a good player.
“As much as you could pull for a guy and still be in the fiercest competition as possible, that’s how we both were,” Rivers said.
Brees held Rivers off for two years before heading to New Orleans, where he’s become one of the most prolific passers in history. But before he left, he and Rivers forged a bond in the Chargers’ quarterback room, pushing one another by collaborating.
“Once it got to, ‘Hey, he’s playing,’ I’m going to prepare like I’m playing, and anything I can do that I think will help him, go for it,” Rivers said. “Offer it up. Offer that information up.”
Brees said he appreciated Rivers’ input.
“I think from the moment I was around Philip, you realize he was going to be a very good player and is going to be around for a long time,” Brees said. “I like to think we, for those two years, brought out the best in each other. It was a great learning experience for both of us and I think we both got a lot better as a result of it.
“From the very beginning you knew that he’s got a mind for this game, he’s a student of the game, he’s highly competitive and just makes plays.”
Whoever works with Rivers this season, the second- and third-string quarterbacks have big shoes to fill. Last year’s backup, Kellen Clemens, is one of Rivers’ closest friends and a player who spent his time as the backup acting more like a coach.
“Kellen was more of an offensive coordinator, how he thought. He was drawing up ideas,” Rivers said. “I think that’s rare.”
What’s more common, though, is a team of players collaborating to figure the best ways to attack a sophisticated defense. Whether it’s by talking through the week, exchanging notes on the white board or with a quick word on the sideline, playing quarterback — even at a Hall of Fame level — isn’t a one-man job.
“It’s really a group effort,” Brees said. “It’s a collaborative deal in the quarterback room.
“You’ve got your offensive coordinator, you’ve got your quarterback coach and the other quarterbacks that are all looking at the same film and yet maybe there are little things each of us are seeing a little bit differently.