Dolphins' decision worked out for Brees, Saints

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The most important two hours in the history of the New Orleans Saints took place in the old home of their opponent for Super Bowl XLIV.

And nobody from the Saints was present.

Throw in the fact that New Orleans will be playing the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the home of the Miami Dolphins and this year's Super Bowl overflows with irony like a soda can left in the backseat on a 110-degree day.

It's well-documented that New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees(notes) could have been a Dolphin in 2006 if Miami had made an offer. While Brees won't say it directly, he makes obvious hints that Miami was his destination of choice at the time.

"When you think about Miami, the reaction is, 'Oooooohhhh, wow,' " Brees said prior to last month's NFC title game against the Minnesota Vikings. "At the time, when you talked about New Orleans, there was a lot of uncertainty about everything involved with the team. Where were they going to play? What kind of shape was the Superdome in? All these things."

But during the NFL scouting combine in February 2006, former Dolphins coach Nick Saban sat in a room with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the man who had performed recent surgeries on Brees and fellow quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes).

The quarterback-starved Dolphins were weighing whether to pursue Brees, a free agent who was coming off surgery to his throwing shoulder after an injury in the San Diego Chargers' season finale, or trade for Culpepper, who was coming off a triple-ligament knee repair from the middle of the 2005 season with the Minnesota Vikings.

Saban grilled Andrews for two hours on the chances of Brees and Culpepper returning to play that season. In hindsight, the question seems almost silly because of where the two quarterbacks sit today.

Brees is now a star, the face of a Saints team that has gotten to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Culpepper is the symbol of someone hanging on, having just finished his second season as a backup for the hapless Detroit Lions – his third team since 2006.

At the time, however, it was a brutal choice. And ultimately, the decision by Saban and the Dolphins has had far-reaching effects:

The Saints have become a serious contender behind the potent offense led by Brees, reaching the Super Bowl this season and the 2006 NFC championship game. Since Brees arrived, the Saints are 38-26 in the regular season and 3-1 in the playoffs.

The Dolphins have gone 25-39 during that time, making the playoffs once. Worse, they have been a picture of inconsistency, featuring seven different starting quarterbacks, three head coaches, two general managers, Bill Parcells as football czar and two different owners.

There's further ripple effect beyond these two teams. Saban's decision to leave the Dolphins for Alabama changed the face of college football. The Crimson Tide has returned to being one of the power programs of the college ranks, topped by an undefeated national championship campaign this past season. If not for Saban, Alabama might have had to pursue former West Virginia and currently embattled Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez even harder.

Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram, who was drawn to Alabama because of Saban's close ties with his father (Saban was an assistant coach when the elder Ingram played at Michigan State in the mid-1980s), might never have signed with the Crimson Tide.

The 2006 NFL draft was likely impacted. Without Brees, the Saints may have been forced to take a quarterback at No. 2 overall – Vince Young(notes) went No. 3 to the Tennessee Titans – rather than running back Reggie Bush(notes). As Saints general manager Mickey Loomis put it: "Getting Drew changed everything we did from that point on. If we don't get him, the plan would have been completely different. I can't even begin to tell you how much it changed every single move we made."

And not just about who was going to play on the team, but even where it would play.

"Who knows how this all would have played out. Maybe the team would have ended up in San Antonio or Los Angeles or wherever," Brees said.

While it's unknown what would have happened to the Saints if they hadn't signed Brees, it appears Miami's decision to take Culpepper factored into Saban leaving the Dolphins following the '06 season.

. "If we had taken Brees, Nick would have stayed," an unnamed former Dolphins executive said. "Not getting the quarterback – and worse, taking the heat for how it went – made Nick think he was never going to make it work. He kept saying, 'We have to have a quarterback, we have to have a quarterback.' He wasn't going to start all over. He didn't have the patience."

The Dolphins medical staff did a thorough check on both Brees and Culpepper. Aside from consulting with Andrews, the Dolphins sent the MRI and other medical reports on both players to four other outside physicians, including renowned New York orthopedic surgeon and Giants team physician Dr. Russ Warren. The opinion of all the doctors was that Culpepper was a better risk at the time. Still, it was Andrews' opinion which mattered most.

At one point during the meeting with Saban, Andrews said he didn't think Brees would be able to throw by the beginning of the exhibition season and might be limited to only short passes early in the regular season.

Saban was aghast.

"Only short passes," Saban told members of the Dolphins staff, incredulously. "We can't spend $10 million on a guy who might not be able to throw in training camp."

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John Lynch's(notes) hit marked Brees' final play with the Chargers.
(Donald Miralle/Getty)

When free agency began, Brees visited the Dolphins, who remained unconvinced. At the time, Brees couldn't raise his arm above his shoulder. Culpepper, by contrast, was ahead of schedule in his return.

After Brees visited and the Dolphins made their final decision not to sign him, Saban even did Brees a favor. The coach called agent Tom Condon and told him that the Dolphins weren't going to sign Brees, but added that they weren't going to announce that publicly.

Armed with that info, Condon ran one final bluff at the Saints and got the desperate organization, which was still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to give Brees a six-year, $60 million contract. It included a $10 million guarantee and another $12 million due after the first season. At the time, it was considered a steep price.

Now, it's a bargain, particularly in comparison to what the Dolphins got in dealing for Culpepper.

Culpepper's recovery stalled over the rest of the 2005 offseason, he gained weight and was so ineffective that Saban benched him during the season. That led to a war of words between them.

Furthermore, getting Brees also allowed New Orleans to draft Reggie Bush with the No. 2 overall pick in the '06 draft, another move that infused excitement into the moribund franchise. Moves that have the Saints vying for a Super Bowl title … in the very place the Dolphins call home.