JACKSON, Miss. -- About halfway through the Friday morning practice here, Drew Brees scanned the field as a quartet of New Orleans Saints teammates ran deep on a "four vertical" combination route, and then he cranked up and unleashed a long spiral for wide receiver Jamal Jones, streaking up the seam, with the pass just a half-stride beyond the reach of its target.
The pass marked one of only two occasions during the Friday morning session in which Brees cut loose without regard for his surgically repaired right shoulder, and one of the few instances in training camp that the five-year veteran quarterback had thrown caution, and the deep-ball, to the wind. The result: While the pass misfired, it sparked a synapse, said Brees, the latest in an increasing set of positive reinforcements which serve as an indicator that his pitching arm is sound again.
Never mind that the pass, which traveled more than 50 yards, didn't connect. What was more important was that it demonstrated that the key components of his right shoulder, stitched together by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews less than eight months ago, had fully reconnected.
"I'll take those kinds of misses for now," Brees said after the practice. "I was actually pretty happy that it was a little too long. Because even though it was, I thought to myself after I threw it, 'Hey, they felt pretty good.' It was a good thing. It was, to me, a good miss."
Through much of the spring and into the summer, Brees has steadfastly followed the step-by-step program prescribed by Andrews, a tiered regimen in which he threw only a set number of passes, at predetermined lengths, and with rest intervals in between. The process stressed attention to mechanics, throwing every pass the same way and at the same release point, over velocity. And so, in most throwing sessions Brees has worried more about being deliberate, almost overly technical at times, than about RPMs.
The end-result of his diligence is that Brees, signed as an unrestricted free agent after the San Diego Chargers allowed him to hit the open market despite a 21-11 record the past two years, seems to have beaten the odds. And the Saints, who desperately needed a leader in the mold of Brees, seem to have won the gamble they took when they signed Brees to a six-year, $60 million contract that will pay him $10 million for 2006, with the balance essentially tied to his continuing health.
"I think my rehabilitation is at about 80 or 85 percent. The rest of it now, that last 10 or 15 percent, is the kind of stuff you can't [achieve] just throwing on the sideline. It's things like throwing off your back foot, or throwing across your body, dropping down [on the delivery point], making a quick decision on a pass, the kinds of things you can't simulate. You have to do them and, at this point, I am. As long as I make the right decisions, the throws will come."
Drew Brees, Saints QB
How dicey a gambit was the Brees deal? Consider this: The Chargers looked at the reports on his shoulder and decided they would cast their lot instead with Philip Rivers, the 2004 first-round pick who didn't start a single game in his first two NFL seasons. The other covetous suitor for Brees' services, Miami, basically bowed out of the chase after a thorough day-and-a-half examination of his shoulder, and opted to trade for Daunte Culpepper, even though he was rehabilitating from a catastrophic left knee injury in which he tore three of the joint's four ligaments.
Certainly the Brees contract was constructed with safeguards to protect the Saints, should the shoulder not come around this year, or ever, and to reward the quarterback if it did. It looks like those caveats won't be necessary, as Brees, who said all along that his recovery was ahead of schedule, and that he would be ready for opening day, appears just about whole again.
With just about every practice, said Brees, who is still operating on a daily pitch count, that becomes more obvious to him. And the incomplete pass for Jones, along with a short crossing route in which he had to wing the ball across his body, a throw that always creates extra torque on the shoulder, were just the latest examples of that.
"I think my rehabilitation is at about 80 or 85 percent," said Brees, a five-year veteran with 58 starts on his resume. "The rest of it now, that last 10 or 15 percent, is the kind of stuff you can't [achieve] just throwing on the sideline. It's things like throwing off your back foot, or throwing across your body, dropping down [on the delivery point], making a quick decision on a pass, the kinds of things you can't simulate. You have to do them and, at this point, I am. As long as I make the right decisions, the throws will come."
And the doubts about whether Brees can again be a viable, big-time quarterback, after suffering labrum and rotator cuff damage in the final regular-season game in 2005, will continue to subside.
Said wide receiver Donte Stallworth: "You just see [his arm] getting stronger and stronger. There might have been times [this spring] when people wondered if he could get to this point. But I don't think anyone who sees him now thinks of Drew as a guy who had shoulder surgery. I mean, you don't stand there and think, 'Wow, it's a miracle,' you know? But it kind of is something pretty special."
Brees has been pretty special, too, for both the Saints and a city that knows a thing or two about needing a miraculous recovery as well.
He is, essentially, the anti-Aaron Brooks, about as far removed from the former New Orleans quarterback as a successor can be. And in every conceivable way: body type, arm strength, pure athletic ability, and, perhaps most critically, leadership skills.
At a position that commands a follow-my-lead-guys persona, Brooks was aloof and standoffish, a player whose immense physical talent was undermined by his own fragile psyche. A couple years ago, Brooks became engaged in a shouting match with defensive end Charles Grant on a flight home following a loss. Players who were on the team at the time still contend that, had the battle escalated, somebody might have tossed Brooks out an emergency exit, so lopsided was the sentiment against him. There's some hyperbole there, for sure, but the apocryphal tale demonstrates the lack of regard and respect that Brooks engendered among his teammates.
Brooks was the kind of quarterback who was just good enough to get you beat. And when he did, the loss was never his fault. He never shouldered culpability for a bad throw, let alone a bad game. In Brees, the Saints are getting a quarterback who will demand focus when times are bad and redirect the spotlight at others when things are going well. The product of a football family -- his grandfather is the third-winningest high school coach in Texas history -- Brees has understood the importance of intangibles at the quarterback position for a long time.
Brees, 27, and with a lot of good years left in him, provided his shoulder stays well, may not possess the size or raw tools of his predecessor. But players who would have thrown Brooks overboard were the NFL to permit coups, are more apt now to toss themselves on a grenade for their new quarterback. Even some defensive guys.
"He is definitely," said standout defensive end Will Smith, "a stand-up guy. And I think he's quickly gained the respect of everyone around here."
Indeed, if first-round choice and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush is the new face of the franchise, then Brees has become the image that Saints most want to portray on the field and in the community. He and his wife, Brittany, have thrown themselves into the community. And unlike the careful throws that Brees had to make while rehabilitating his shoulder, there has been no holding back the couple on the various charitable endeavors in which they have become involved.
When team officials were recruiting Brees as a free agent, they chauffeured him to some of the most devastated sections of New Orleans, where neighborhoods were essentially swept away by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. It was, Brees allowed, a mighty dose of reality and culture shock mixed into a kind of toxic brew that might have prompted any other unrestricted free agent to look elsewhere, anywhere for gainful employment.
And for Brees? "It was kind of like a calling," he said. "I mean, the impact it has on you, well, unless you see it, you can't understand it. But it just seemed the right place."
The Saints, who don't appear to possess a deep enough talent base to compete in a tough NFC South, don't figure to be particularly good in 2006. And the city of New Orleans, despite relief efforts, won't be whole again anytime soon. The plight of the franchise and the Gulf Coast area, though, figure to be a whole lot better because of Drew Brees' presence.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.