Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Oct 2009

ESPN: Brees or Rivers?

For ESPN this week, I did a piece looking at how Drew Brees and Philip Rivers have performed since Brees' departure from the Chargers in 2006.

The story ends giving the reader a choice: Would you rather have Drew Brees and Larry Fizgerald, or Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, and Nate Kaeding?

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 14 Oct 2009

13 comments, Last at 16 Oct 2009, 7:11pm by Capitan


by sirbud (not verified) :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 1:17pm

I don't have ESPN insider, but I hope you discussed the possibility (probability) that SD would never have run an offense like NO when LT was in his prime. Brees has developed into an excellent QB and is a master at Payton's offense, but I don't believe that would have happened in SD.
btw, no way the Chargers pick Fitzgerald over Robert Gallery in 2004. Gallery was supposed to be the best OL prospect in 20 years at that time, and SD considered choosing him outright over Eli.

by Drakos (not verified) :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 1:30pm

In 2003 Brees had 11 TDs and 15 INTs. He had 7 TDs and 12 INTs when he was benched for Flutie. So saying he had more TDs than Ints that season is wrong. He did have 1 more TD than INT in his last 3 games but he also had 3 fumbles in those games. In the end Brees and Fitz probably would have been a better outcome, but unless I'm misremembering going into the 2003 draft it was a pretty common opinion that Brees wasn't the answer at QB.

by dafrk3in :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 1:33pm

I agree with Sirbud. Arguing that San Diego misplayed its hand would require a LOT more information. You could use the same logic to argue that almost every decision involving a draft pick has been incorrect ex-post.

The thought of Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, and Larry Fitzgerald on the same team with Drew Brees, though, is quite frightening.

by The Voice of Reason (not verified) :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 6:56pm

I read the article...The author also neglected to mention that the Chargers received a third draft pick (5th round) in the Rivers-Manning trade. The Chargers ended up trading that pick to Tampa Bay for OT Roman Oben, who was a competent starter at LT for the Chargers before a career-ending foot injury.

by speedegg :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 8:36pm

Sure, hindsight is 20-20, BUT like the article says San Diego did make avoidable mistakes when it came to the 2004 Draft.

Having been in San Diego during the whole thing (Flutie-Brees-Rivers era), the biggest reason for letting Brees go was that he wasn't "A.J.'s guy", River's was. River was a first round pick and GM Smith fully committed to him, but gave Brees a lowball contract.

If you think otherwise, look at LT. LT was a first round pick by Smith and while LT's performance last year regressed to average (or mediocre), he wasn't cut loose like Brees. LT's contract was renegotiated this off-season. Smith had doubts about Brees and despite giving him assurances he was the franchise QB, offered him a low contract, so Brees left for a big contract.

Letting Brees go coupled with Smith's curse of not being able to scout wide receivers (anyone remember Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker or David Boston among others) led people to question Brees' ability to be the franchise QB.

The thing that kills me is had Smith committed to Brees during 2007 (River's first year as starter) San Diego would have:

1) been the first NFL team to go undefeated (they were 14-2 only losing to Kansas City and Baltimore by a touchdown or less)
2) and would have won the SuperBowl (they would've faced the Patriots, then Colts, then the Bears in Miami...with Rex Grossman as QB)

by Neoplatonist Bolthead (not verified) :: Thu, 10/15/2009 - 11:24am

Smith didn't pick LT. LT was drafted in 2001, in the Michael Vick Deal.

by The Irishman (not verified) :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 10:31pm

I also read the article. The argument that somehow the Chargers should have known they didn't need a QB in the 2004 draft is a complete re-reading of history based on ex post facto results.

In 2003, Brees had a DVOA of -23.8%. Some guys who were right around the same level that year, but all with slightly better DVOA's than Brees - Joey Harrington, Rick Mirer, Tim Couch, Jeff Blake, and Drew Bledsoe (during his time in Buffalo when many observers thought his career was over). Perhaps the Chargers as an offense were just that bad, one might argue. Well, Doug Flutie had a -2.2% DVOA for the 2003 Chargers. To that point, Brees had played in 28 games over 3 years and his interception percentage was 3.4%. For a comparison, Rex Grossman's career interception percentage is 3.6%, and largely as a result he barely found a job as a backup during this offseason. Even worse, Brees's interception percentage (4.2% in 2003), YPA, completion percentage, and passer rating had all gotten worse from 2002 to 2003 (he'd only played in 1 game in his rookie year, 2001). Here's Brees's year-by-year stats: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/players/stats?playerId=2580 . It's shocking the degree to which every major stat - especially YPA - is consistently better after 2003.

As for the decision to go with Rivers over Brees, my understanding is that the Chargers were willing to sign Brees at some price and that the biggest sticking point was guaranteed money. In short, the Chargers were willing to offer Brees - coming off an injury and resulting surgery to his throwing shoulder - a contract with relatively low guarantees but big incentive dollars. Not a crazy position to take, and the fact that Brees has since been healthy doesn't automatically prove that it was wrong at the time.

My takeaway is that the Chargers had a rare situation in the modern NFL, choosing between 2 options at QB who both have subsequently played so well. The article begging to be written about Brees, which I think would be more interesting, would center on his jump in performance after 2003 and any historical comparables.

by sirbud (not verified) :: Wed, 10/14/2009 - 11:01pm

Completely agree with everything you said. Couple more interesting things about Brees. Check his game log for 2004. His "jump" came after Week 3 @ DEN. He was so bad in that game, that Rivers was moved up in the depth chart to #2 and was going to take over the minute Brees faltered. Brees responded and made a huge improvement. When he was spurned by Miami in 2006, where he really wanted to go, for Culpepper (ha!), he responded and became a great QB for NO. It's a great quality of his to respond when his back is against the wall, but I think he needed that pressure to improve his game.

by Neoplatonist Bolthead (not verified) :: Thu, 10/15/2009 - 11:26am

My sentiments exactly.

by Neoplatonist Bolthead (not verified) :: Thu, 10/15/2009 - 11:27am

I meant to reply to poster #6: my sentiments exactly.

by Jerry :: Thu, 10/15/2009 - 8:09pm

You did reply to #6; that's why there's no indent from the one directly above your #9 (unlike this).

by Scott C :: Fri, 10/16/2009 - 2:59am

I totally agree. And there is one more big thing to consider when analyzing the value of each:

Rivers is a few years younger.

The total lifetime value of a quarterback to a team is what we are talking about here.

Brees playing at his current level for 6 years, or Rivers slightly under that for 9 or 10?

Comparing only what has happened so far, is not just ex post facto, its ignoring the consideration of future results.

Do this analysis again in 3 years. Maybe Rivers (or Brees) performance level falls off. Maybe Merriman is never good again. Maybe Fitzgerald has a career ending injury.

I also feel that this piece is sorely lacking in the usual F.O. analysis. Where are the similarity scores? Where is any sort of projection AT ALL? We get a little light-weight mention of the 3rd down effect, a few stats on just the QB's, then some hand-wavy speculation about value of other players related to the Brees/Rivers move.

And you are right on, the Chargers didn't "let Brees go" they offered him a contract, and he went and shopped around for a bigger, better one with a lot more guaranteed money.

by Capitan (not verified) :: Fri, 10/16/2009 - 7:11pm

Honestly, I thought this was the worst piece I've read by FO in a long time. Why would you conclude that Rivers would have commanded 3 top draft picks, based on one trade that was deemed a total bust? That would be like arguing that you could now trade LDT for the same deal that the Cowboys got for Herschel Walker.

We can't go back in time, so we certainly can't know for sure, but I never got the sense that GMs were coveting Rivers at the time. At the same time, as other posters have noted, Brees was coming off serious shoulder surgery and was seen as being very risky, both because of his surgery and because of his limited history of success (which is why the Dolphins lowballed Brees as well).

The Saints took a huge gamble on a guy coming off of serious surgery, and it paid off. But calling AJ Smith's decision the wrong one, when by all measures he took a very thoughtful approach in offering Brees a conservative contract, seems akin to saying that the guy who doubled his money playing poker made the wrong decision because he could have won even more by betting on #9 at the roulette table (which happened to hit). Based on the information at the time, it looks like AJ Smith made a very savvy decision.