As the Dolphins prepare to play the New Orleans Saints this week, you will likely hear repeatedly how the Dolphins might have had quarterback Drew Brees not once, but twice.
As I am older than the wheel and have covered the Dolphins since 24 B.C., I thought I would give you the benefit of my experience and share with you the circumstances of how and why the Dolphins passed on a player that in turn has passed for 27,658 yards since 2001.
The story starts in the spring of 2001 when Brees was coming out of Purdue University. The Dolphins were coming off a fine season in 2000 when they won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. New quarterback Jay Fiedler had played well, but not great, in throwing 14 TDs and 14 INTs.
The Dolphins needed a quarterback because Damon Huard had left in free agency so then VP of Player Personnel Rick Spielman was looking for someone to fill the void. And yes, the Dolphins were studying Brees.
"At least three people on our staff have seen every snap in his career," Spielman told Sports Illustrated. "We will have a substantial field on Brees before we interview him at the combine in Indianapolis."
But something happened between the time Spielman was studying Brees and the April draft rolled around because with Brees on the board, the Dolphins used their 26th overall selection on cornerback Jamar Fletcher from Wisconsin.
Brees went to the Chargers with the 32nd overall selection -- the first selection of the second round that year. And it did not go unnoticed that the Dolphins passed on Brees. Spielman was asked that day why pass on an accomplished QB at that point?
"It really wasn't a consideration," he replied.
The Dolphins did eventually pick a QB. They selected Oklahoma's Josh Heupel in the sixth round. But the fact Brees got away stung, even then. So I remember asking Spielman about Brees again at an informal press gathering at the then Royal Oaks Country Club.
"We thought Drew would be an upgrade over Jay," Spielman said. "But we don't think he is that much better. We feel good about Jay. Plus we think we really upgraded our secondary with Jamar. He can play press. He can help on special teams. He's going to play sooner. He's going to help us more."
To be fair, Brees did not become an instant success in San Diego. In fact he struggled for three seasons. But by 2004, something started making sense for him and he was suddenly a very, very good NFL quarterback around the same time the Dolphins were giving up a second-round draft pick for A.J. Feeley and trying to replace Fiedler.
Fletcher, meanwhile, started a total of six games in three seasons for Miami and was traded to San Diego in 2004. Heupel? He never made it out of training camp back in 2001.
Interestingly, Spielman kept a photo of himself and Fletcher on his office wall at Dolphins camp. At first he said it was because Fletcher was his first-ever pick with the Dolphins and wanted to remember that. Years later, the story changed. Spielman claimed the pick was hoisted upon him by Wannstedt and he wanted to remember how not to make a selection.
That's how that sad, first shot at Brees came to a close.
In 2005, Nick Saban took over as coach. And after authoring a solid rebound season with a 9-7 record, Saban decided that to take the next step, his team needed to replace starter Gus Frerotte with an accomplished NFL quarterback.
Brees was available because he had injured his shoulder in the final game of the 2005 season. The injury required arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Later it was learned Brees had also a partially torn his rotator cuff.
Slated for free agency, Brees negotiated a new deal with the Chargers expecting to remain with his original team. But San Diego offered a cautious, five-year, $50 million deal that was heavily loaded with incentives. The contract made clear that San Diego had serious concerns about Brees and his shoulder. When the Chargers declined to improve their offer, Brees did two things:
He got a statement from renown surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who performed the surgery, saying his shoulder was 100 percent and not any more likely to be reinjured than it ever was. The statement was released to the media.
And then Brees went hunting for a new team in free agency.
Two teams seemed most eager to get Brees: Miami and New Orleans.
Saban, ever the competitor, wanted to get out front of the Saints so he and his wife flew to Alabama to meet Brees and his wife for dinner. Saban fell in love with Brees. The coach was certain Brees was his guy.
The two agreed that Brees, who had already scheduled a visit in New Orleans first, would come to South Florida afterward.
Remember that in the spring of 2006, New Orleans was still recovering from the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. There was talk of relocating the team. Parts of the city were still suffering from the storm's aftermath.
The Saints were desperate to make a statement that would be perceived as a vote of confidence in the city and would drive ticket sales. They made that statement by offering Brees a five-year contract that included $8 million guaranteed the first year and a $10 million option the second year.
Brees was blown away, but sources insisted he really preferred to play for the Dolphins instead.
So he left New Orleans without signing a contract and flew to South Florida. He had dinner with Saban at a place called Grille 66 in Fort Lauderdale which to this day remains where the Dolphins take their free agents and coach candidates and alike.
Everything seemed cool but the next day weirded Brees out. He was reportedly subjected to a six-hour physical that centered, of course, around his surgically repaired shoulder. To this day, I am not certain whether or not the Dolphins made Brees an offer. A good source close to Brees insisted Miami did, although it was a lowball offer.
Regardless, Brees saw his future in New Orleans. His agent Tom Condon went back to the Saints and beat them up some more and extracted a six-year, $60 million deal that included $10 million in guarantees the first year and another $12 million the second year in the form of an option. Brees signed the deal on March 14, 2006.
The Dolphins simultaneously went a different direction, sending a second-round pick to Minnesota for Daunte Culpepper. Now, the interesting thing here is that Culpepper was also a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback but one with an injury problem of his own.
Culpepper had shredded his right knee in October of 2005, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL during a game versus Carolina. Culpepper, still recovering from the torn knee ligaments, had met with new Vikings coach Brad Childress and had suffered something of new break -- in his relationship with the new coach due to a contract squabble.
So Culpepper was available in trade.
The trade was made with Miami and the day Culpepper arrived, the Dolphins redid his contract and paid him something in the vicinity of $10 million on the spot.
So what happened?
Months later, when Brees was lighting up NFL secondaries and Culpepper was benched, I requested a private interview with Saban to ask, basically, what was going through his cotton-pickin' mind when he picked Culpepper over Brees.
This was the answer he gave me:
''Let me just say this,'' he said in addressing the subject directly for the first time, ``It was a medical decision. I don't think medicine, personnel or any of that is an exact science. I think we have good, professional people in that area. I think they made the best judgment they could make at the time relative to the circumstances. No one could predict the future. It is what it is right now.''
Saban explained that he preferred Brees primarily because getting him didn't include giving up a draft pick. But he said the medical staff's recommendation was not only that Culpepper would have a better chance of recovering in time for the 2006 season than Brees but also that Culpepper would have a smaller chance of sustaining a reinjury.
''Hindsight is always 20/20,'' Saban told me. ``Let's wait until we're 10 miles down the road on this instead of right now before we decide which guy was the right guy.
``We thought both were good players, and we still think Daunte will be a good player for us. That's all we're concerned about. We're not looking at what anyone else on another team is doing, because our concern is our players.
''We can't worry about what went right or what went wrong [in the offseason],'' Saban said. ``We're going to try to make what we have here work and that's what we're going to do.''
The irony is that although Saban's public stance was to blame the doctors but say he still believed the situation was salvagable, he privately was blaming the team medical staff and repeating, "We should have gotten that guy, we should have gotten that guy," referring to Brees.
Saban was not, in fact, convinced Culpepper would ever be a Pro Bowl player again.
That was in October of 2006. By January 2007, Saban quit. By July 2007, Culpepper was cut.
The rest is history.
And now you know why Drew Brees is not a Miami Dolphin.