At the conclusion of the 2005 season the Chargers faced a major decision. Keep Drew Brees or hand over the Quarterback position to Philip Rivers who had been waiting in the wings. Rivers backed up Brees for two seasons following a 2004 draft day blockbuster trade.
The Chargers traded the rights to Eli Manning after drafting him first overall for first round picks in 2004 and 2005, a third round pick in 2004 and tackle Roman Oben. San Diego used their 2004 picks on Rivers and kicker Nate Kaeding and the 2005 pick on linebacker Shawne Merriman.
The trade helped the Chargers tremendously. San Diego has received six Pro Bowl appearances from the players they acquired, while Manning has only one Pro Bowl appearance.
With Brees' contract up at the end of the 2005 season, the banter was what were the Chargers going to do? In the last game of the 2005 season Brees suffered a torn labrum against Denver. Brees was facing shoulder surgery with an expiring contract looming.
He decided to leave San Diego after he turned down the Chargers incentive laded contract.
Drafting Rivers was a questionable move at the time. Even with the same trade, the Chargers had other options in the first round. Some of the pundits suggested they desperately needed help on the offensive line. They also had needs at receiver and in the secondary.
Future Pro Bowl safety, the late Sean Taylor, was the immediate pick after Rivers.
Brees also came to the Chargers in a blockbuster trade. Holding the number one pick in the 2001 draft, the Chargers traded it to Atlanta. In return they received three draft picks and wide receiver Tim Dwight. The Chargers turned those draft picks into LaDainian Tomlinson, Brees, and Florida wide receiver Reche Caldwell.
Brees and LT were the keys to rebuilding the Chargers. Dwight was an important contributor for four years.
Brees came to the Chargers as one of the best QB's in Big Ten history. During his career at Purdue, he set conference records in passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offense (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). During his senior season, Brees led Purdue to its first Rose Bowl in 33 years.
He came to San Diego and made an impact in his second season. By his fourth season the Chargers made their first postseason appearance in nine years.
Brees blossomed during his final two seasons in San Diego, but Rivers seemed to be the heir apparent from the moment he was drafted. He threw 51 touchdown passes and only 22 interceptions during those two years. He made the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season.
In the four seasons since his departure, Brees has become an elite NFL Quarterback. He came within 15 yards of Dan Marino's single season yardage record during the 2008 season. In his four seasons in New Orleans, Brees has led the NFL in completions, attempts, yardage, and touchdowns twice and quarterback rating and percentage once.
His 70.6 completion percentage this season broke former Cincinnati QB Ken Anderson's record set in 1982.
Rivers has developed into a great NFL quarterback. He led the NFL in rating and touchdown passes in 2008 and still didn't receive a invite to the Pro Bowl. Brees is close to a Hall of Fame career. He set one record and nearly set another. He has led the Saints to the 2006 NFC Championship game and has them in their first Superbowl in the 43 year history of the franchise.
Both quarterbacks have three career playoff wins.
Rivers has proven to be one of the best leaders in the NFL. In the loss to the Patriots in the 2007 AFC Championship game, Rivers played with a torn ACL. He helped the Chargers transition from a running team to a passing team in 2007.
Rivers is a very vocal leader and has often been criticized for being too brash. Brees has also been described as vocal and infectious without being as brash as Rivers.
While Rivers has accomplished a lot in four seasons as a starter, has he accomplished enough to be considered an elite quarterback?
During his four seasons leading the Chargers, they are the only team in the NFL to make the divisional playoffs each of those four seasons. The Chargers have a 46-18 record with Rivers leading the way. Despite being one of the NFL's best teams during the last four seasons, the Chargers have compiled only a 3-4 postseason record.
Although Rivers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in he regular season, he has yet to make a major impact in the post season. In his seven postseason games, Rivers has thrown eight touchdowns, nine interceptions, with only a 79.05 passer rating. His regular season rating is 95.4
Although it is unfair to judge QBs by wins and losses. At the end of the day, if you are not setting NFL records and leading a prolific offense than postseason success is how most QBs are measured. In an Interview with CBSSports.com, Rivers said, "Certainly, from an individual standpoint, at the end of the day that has a lot to do with how you're measured."
After being eliminated by the Jets, Rivers is now just 1-3 in the divisional playoffs. Two of those losses occurred at home after the Chargers had a bye week. John Elway was often criticized for losing Super Bowls early in his career. Jim Kelly will mostly be remembered as the Quarterback behind four straight Bills losses in the Super Bowl.
In the four seasons since his departure, Brees has become an elite Quarterback by setting records and leading a prolific offense. He is perfect QB to run Sean Payton's offense.
Payton and Brees have led the Saints to their second conference championship game in as many playoff appearances Before they arrived, the Saints had only one playoff win in 39 years. They now have four since and are in their first Superbowl in the franchise's 43 year history.
With an opportunistic defense behind their explosive offense, the Saints have had their best season in franchise history in 2009. They are a young team that figures to grow.
The Chargers had a disappointing end to the season for the fourth consecutive year. Two of their losses have been at home as the higher seed, while they have lost twice to the AFC Champions.
In the 2007 AFC Championship game it was the Chargers inability in the redzone that was their downfall. They suffered a 21-12 loss to New England when they had to settle for four field goals, while the Patriots completed three touchdown drives. That has been a continuing problem in the four years since then.
In addition to wins and losses, QBs are often measured by how well they do in the clutch. Game winning drives and comebacks are a key stat at the most elite position in American sports.
Rivers and his leading receivers, Tight End Antonio Gates and Wide Receivers Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson have many outstanding seasons left. How long the rest of the team has will be determined during a tumultuous off-season.
The Chargers two biggest stars, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman, are free agents and might not return in 2010.
LT has diminished from the best at his position during the 2000s to becoming a serviceable back.
How the Chargers would take shape without their two biggest stars remains to be seen. The window of opportunity might have closed for the Chargers as they are currently configured.
For Rivers to live up to his star billing he will have to perform better in future postseasons or set passing records comparable to Brees or Charger Hall of Fame Quarterback Dan Fouts.
A last second drive or taking the Chargers on his back and leading them to victory will increase Rivers visibility. Great quarterbacks all have successful teams behind them, but the most successful ones have memorable games, drives and plays to cement their place in history. Rivers is still waiting for his signature moment or a record that will stand out.
Chargers fans everywhere are rooting for Rivers and hoping his best is yet to come. Other than Tom Brady, most of the elite quarterbacks in NFL history have had to wait their turn to win their first title or advance to their first Superbowl. Manning, Elway, and Favre all had to play in multiple playoffs and seasons before winning their ever elusive title.
Rivers is in his prime, with the right players around him, his best might be yet to come.