SAN DIEGO When the San Diego Chargers reported to training camp in late July, they were summoned to a players-only meeting by Drew Brees.
It might have been a bold move, because it would be several weeks before coach Marty Schottenheimer decided Brees would keep his job as starting quarterback.
Brees still considered himself the starter even after a rough 2003 season, and his message was simple: don't listen to the naysayers who thought there was no way the NFL's worst team would be better.
''Well you know what? The people who were going to determine what we were going to do were in that room,'' Brees recalled after he was voted The Associated Press 2004 Comeback Player of the Year.
''So that was my point: 'Look around, guys. It's just us. Know that we control our own destiny. Nobody else does. Don't worry about what people say, just focus on what we do.' ''
Brees has gone from forgotten man to one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. He'll make his playoff debut Saturday night when the AFC West champion Chargers host the wild-card New York Jets.
''Obviously, going back to this offseason, and even last season, I set out with a goal and a purpose in mind,'' Brees said. ''That was, first of all, to lead this team to a championship. Along with that, to try to become one of the best quarterbacks in this league, although neither of those goals have been accomplished. But that's the path, that's what I strive for.''
Brees made his fourth NFL season his best by far, ranking third in passer rating behind Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper, and making his first Pro Bowl. The former Purdue star and first choice in the second round of the 2001 draft, Brees completed 262 of 400 passes for 3,159 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. His 104.8 rating was a 37.3-point improvement over the previous year.
Brees earned 18 1/2 votes from a national panel of writers and broadcasters who cover pro football, easily beating Carolina linebacker Mark Fields, who received 10 votes. Fields was sidelined last season with Hodgkin's disease.
With Brees the starter for most of 2003, San Diego went 4-12. He played a primary role in that flop with 15 interceptions and just 11 touchdown passes, was benched for five straight games and yanked from two others.
''I could turn on the film and watch myself last year and say, 'That's not me. That's not the way I play,''' Brees said.
But the Chargers thought otherwise.
General manager A.J. Smith told anyone who would listen that the Chargers needed to ''upgrade'' at quarterback.
The Chargers so doubted Brees that they drafted Eli Manning with the top pick last April, then traded him to the New York Giants for the rights to another highly rated quarterback prospect, Philip Rivers. Had Rivers not held out for half the preseason, Brees might not have gotten on the field in '04 he wasn't chosen as the starter until six days before the opener.
Brees used the offseason developments as motivation.
''I viewed that as if I'm going to upgrade it myself, and that's going to be the upgrade at quarterback,'' Brees said on the day he was made the starter.
Brees never let his confidence waver, even after the Chargers started 1-2 this season.
''You can't give up,'' he said. ''You always have to have that attitude that your goals will be achieved. You've just got to keep grinding away. And if not this year, then next year. And if not next year, then the year after. You just keep believing, and it will happen.''
He could parlay his sensational season into some big money, either as a free agent, or if the Chargers tag him as their ''franchise'' player. Ultimately, he'd like a long-term deal from the Chargers.
Backup QB Doug Flutie, who won the first AP Comeback Player award in 1998, was happy for his teammate.
''I just think it will be very satisfying to him considering the situation that he was in at the end of last season,'' Flutie said. ''Redemption, a feeling of accomplishment, all that. Just that it's showing a lot of resolve and bouncing back up off the floor and taking the shots and jumping back in and going after it.''
Eight players received votes for Comeback Player. Buffalo running back Willis McGahee finished third with six, followed by Pittsburgh RB Jerome Bettis (4 1/2) and New England's Corey Dillon (4). Atlanta QB Michael Vick had three, while Tampa Bay QB Brian Griese and Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh got one each.
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