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Brees Is Putting Chargers on Spot

The San Diego Chargers have this little problem. They keep winning with quarterback Drew Brees at the wheel.

It’s all good right now, with a 6-3 record and a share of first place in the AFC West Division. But it’s going to make for some tough decisions in the off-season, when Brees becomes a free agent and the team must decide whether to keep him or fast-forward to the future, meaning Philip Rivers and his $40-million contract.

I’d rather stand on a proven quality than take a hit on potential. Let the dealer bust.

Brees is proving himself more and more every week.

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He completed 22 of 36 passes for 257 yards and four touchdowns in the Chargers’ 43-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. So now the Chargers have a situation like Bialystock and Bloom in “The Producers,” with an unexpected hit on their hands.

Ultimately money and that other precious NFL commodity, first-round draft picks, wind up ruling. If the Chargers re-signed Brees and couldn’t trade him, they’d be stuck with two expensive quarterbacks eating up their salary-cap space. And it’s just as difficult to imagine the Chargers finding a team to accept Rivers’ contract as it is to conceive of them letting him “earn” it by standing on the sidelines.

The instant success of Pittsburgh Steeler rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, selected seven spots after Rivers, doesn’t help. But Roethlisberger is already ahead of Peyton Manning at this stage in their careers. Manning was the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft ... which brings us back to Ryan Leaf, a Gigli-an failure who could wind up setting this franchise back who knows how many years.

Had Leaf, whom the Chargers selected with the second pick in 1998, kept it together, he’d be entering his prime now and the Chargers could use their draft picks to strengthen other areas. They selected quarterback Eli Manning with the No. 1 overall pick, then traded him to the New York Giants for Rivers when Manning balked at coming to San Diego. Now, if and when they go to Rivers and he doesn’t cut it, they’re back to square one.

Sitting in the middle of this is Brees, a second-round pick in the 2001 draft who was supposed to be yielding to Rivers about now. In two years as a starter, he threw more interceptions (31) than touchdowns (28) and last season lost his job to 41-year-old Doug Flutie.

Brees had his shot. Development? Who has time for that in an age when even the one-hour photo developers have been rendered obsolete by digital cameras?

That’s why Brees was merely supposed to keep things orderly until Rivers took over. Instead, this year’s theme turned into “Adventures in Babysitting.”

Brees has thrown 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

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“I’m not trying to force the ball,” Brees said. “We weren’t a fast-starting offense last year so we found ourselves down quite a bit. You press a bit and that’s when turnovers typically happen. I feel like we started fast this year and there’s no reason to force the ball.”

“Things have slowed down for him,” Coach Marty Schottenheimer. “He’s able to go through his progressions with a certainty and he’s confident in where things are going to be and he’s confident in his protection. When you have confidence as a quarterback it makes things slow down.”

Of course, it helps that the team around him is better, starting with a revamped offensive line that allowed Brees to be sacked only five times in the last six games. Brees has quickly made a favorite target out of tight end Antonio Gates, an emerging star. And he has found an instant connection with Keenan McCardell that’s evident only three games after the Chargers acquired him in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Sometimes it just happens like that,” said McCardell, who caught six passes for 89 yards Sunday. “Drew’s looking for me, I’m open. I’m just trying to be quarterback-friendly.”

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Gates is the real deal, evoking memories of the man who reinvented his position. He caught three touchdowns Sunday, and the last Charger tight end with three touchdowns in a game was ... you guessed it, Kellen Winslow, who had a hat trick against Kansas City in 1983.

Rivers took his first baby step Sunday, taking the field with 4 minutes 4 seconds remaining. He did nothing but hand the ball off and kneel as the Chargers ran out the clock.

Of course, they don’t give out $40-million contracts for janitorial services, so Rivers will have to earn his keep in the future.

Problem is, the Chargers’ surprising dash through the season’s first half has them thinking playoffs, making the prospect of a new orientation process with Rivers next year seem like a step back.

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You can see the blueprint for that approach in Cincinnati, where the Bengals almost made the playoffs last year with veteran Jon Kitna at quarterback, but got started with the Carson Palmer project this year.

As a rule of thumb in the NFL, you don’t want to follow the example set by the Bengals, who are on their way to another losing season with a 3-5 record.

The Chargers believe they’re on their way to the playoffs. They’re definitely headed for a tough call in the off-season.

“It’s going to be fun to see how this whole thing plays out,” Flutie said. “I have no idea, and I’m not going to begin to guess. But Drew’s in the driver’s seat. That’s all I know.”

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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