Brees’ story must include the man who drafted himby J.W. Miller on 10/08/18
On Monday night, if the football gods are cooperative, Saints’ QB Drew Brees will pass Peyton Manning and become the all-time passing yards leader in NFL history. The Monday Night Football crew, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are primed and ready with all the in-game stoppages, mini-tributes and historical balloons they can drop on America to celebrate a major milestone in league history. But it's likely that none of those balloons will tell the story of the man who drafted Brees out of Purdue and gave him the platform to complete his first passing yards on his way to the NFL record.
John Butler, general manager of the San Diego Chargers in 2001, carefully constructed the scenario that brought Brees into the NFL. I write with some knowledge of this because I worked with Butler for two years in Buffalo after I left the Saints in 1996, and we talked about how Brees became a Charger. Butler was a larger than life guy, a burly, tough brawler from the streets of Chicago who loved football but did not take academics seriously in high school. College was out of the question, so in 1964 Butler began a four-year hitch with the Marines and was soon shipped to Vietnam. He grew up over there, surviving combat while learning discipline and determining that the direction for the rest of his life was football.
By 2001, we had both left Buffalo, having tired of our shared task of trying to manage erratic owner Ralph Wilson. By then, I was contracts negotiator in Chicago and Butler was in his first year as GM of the Chargers. When we spoke after the 2001 NFL Draft, Butler was giddy over his first draft in San Diego in which his first two picks would become Hall of Famers. The Chargers had the No. 1 overall pick that year and needed a quarterback after the previous administration had jettisoned the ill-fated Ryan Leaf the previous year.
The 2001 draft was heavy with higher-rated wide receivers and defensive players, and, outside of Michael Vick, the best quarterback options were Quincy Carter of Georgia, Marques Tuiasosopo of Washington and Brees of Purdue. Instead of using the No. 1 overall pick, Butler decided to parlay its value to fill more than one major hole. He knew Atlanta also was in the market for a quarterback and coveted Vick, so Butler swapped his No. 1 pick for Atlanta’s No. 5 pick plus a third-rounder in 2001 and a second-rounder in 2002. When the draft got to the No. 5 slot, Butler wisely chose RB LaDanian Tomlinson of TCU, the top running back in the draft. Then the games began.
Butler was impressed with Brees from his interviews and the fact that he had played four years in college and displayed uncanny maturity and decision-making ability. But would he get the opportunity to draft him? Butler was afraid that Brees would not get past Miami at No. 26 or Oakland at No. 28, and he tried to use his multiple picks to trade back into the first round. Those attempts failed, but when both teams drafted defensive backs, Butler was home free. With San Diego’s own No. 1 pick in the second round, he chose Brees. “I really didn’t think he was going to be there,” Butler said. “I knew he had first-round talent.”
That first season, Brees only played in one game, backing up QB Doug Flutie in a 5-11 season. The script flipped in 2002, as Brees became the starter and led the Chargers to a respectable 8-8 record. But during that season John Butler got sick. Always a heavy smoker, Butler developed lymphoma and died in April, 2003, at age 56, never seeing the fruits of his greatest draft. Brees struggled the following season, starting 11 games, but he was benched for five games behind Flutie. New GM A.J. Smith, Butler’s assistant with the Bills and Chargers, was not sold on Brees. During the 2004 draft, Smith made the memorable draft day swap of Eli Manning for Philip Rivers.
But an interesting thing happened that season. The Chargers went 12-4 and made the playoffs. Tomlinson rushed for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns and Brees threw 27 touchdown passes against seven interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl. Butler’s plan was vindicated. Brees would play for the Chargers one more season, before Rivers became the starter and Brees’ story would find a happy ending in New Orleans.