Drew Brees setting the record for NFL passing yards Monday night transported me back to a mystical time when Brad Childress looked like an oracle and Nick Saban resembled a fool, a time that mired the Miami Dolphins in mediocrity and led the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl.
I was at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., covering the Twins, when the Dolphins called a news conference so Saban could discuss, or avoid discussing, the signing of Daunte Culpepper.
I drove across Alligator Alley to find Saban standing behind a lectern, explaining why — or refusing to explain why — his team chose Culpepper as its franchise quarterback.
If you remember, Childress’ first revelatory act as Vikings head coach was to ridicule Culpepper’s unwillingness to rehabilitate his injured knee in Minnesota. Childress described Culpepper working out on his own in Florida, saying, “They go into a Walmart parking lot to do his movement. So you can understand where I’m coming from. There’s the HealthSouth, the Chinese restaurant, the laundromat, here’s the alley, out the back door and into the Walmart parking lot.”
Culpepper rehabilitated his knee well enough in the parking lots of Florida to trade a second-round draft pick to the Vikings for him, choosing that price over the large contract Brees was asking for.
Imagine the football landscape if the Dolphins had signed Brees in 2006 instead of trading for Culpepper.
The Dolphins, with Brees, might have dented the New England Patriots’ dynasty.
Brees and Tom Brady would have faced each other twice a season.
Saban might have stayed in South Florida instead of leaving for Alabama and dominating the college football world.
The Saints probably would not have won a Super Bowl.
Childress inherited Culpepper as his franchise quarterback, and while it is now easy to judge him a failure, at the time he was two years removed from what was then one of the most productive and impressive seasons by a quarterback in the history of the NFL.
That’s the other twist in this story: Had Childress committed to Culpepper, the Dolphins might have had no choice but to meet Brees’ contract demands.
Instead, Culpepper flopped, and Childress drafted Tarvaris Jackson. Culpepper’s failure sent Saban searching for a job where he was guaranteed to have the best talent on the field, and Jackson’s struggles led to the Vikings signing Brett Favre, who lost to Brees and the Saints in the NFC title game.
Brees became a cultural as well as sports hero in New Orleans. He lives in Uptown, coaches his kids’ teams and has helped the city heal from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina — psychically if not physically. He has found a home.
I have another personal memory of Brees. During his senior year, I stopped by Purdue to speak with him. I’m 5-11. He’s about my height, maybe a touch shorter. He wasn’t particularly muscular, and had that distinctive mole on his face.
He looked like a high school quarterback.
He was a great high school quarterback in Austin, Texas, but his lack of size and a knee injury kept Texas and Texas A&M from recruiting him, so he signed with Purdue.
The San Diego Chargers made him a second-round pick, then used a first-round pick on Philip Rivers just three years later.
Brees tore his labrum in the last game of the 2005 season, and some doctors told him he might not play football again.
Athletes love to say they silenced their doubters. Brees has just about made the entire football world mute. The most prolific passer in NFL history has had to prove and re-prove himself at every level, and now that he’s atop the statistical lists, he might keep going for another few years, turning the records of New Orleans native Peyton Manning into faint memories.
The Dolphins could have had him.
Of course, the Vikings could have tried to sign him, too.