Report: Behind scenes, Saints QB Drew Brees still unsure if he'll play vs. Panthers _lowres

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Drew Brees says the decision on whether he plays Sunday at Carolina will be his, not someone else’s. Which is no surprise to the last person to replace him in a game as quarterback of the Saints.

“Drew is the most competitive guy I’ve ever met in my life,” said Mark Brunell, who was Brees’ backup in 2008 and 2009. “If he thinks that the best way for the team to win the game is for him to be in that quarterback spot, you know it’s going to be him.

“I have a lot of respect for Luke McCown. He’s a solid backup, but he’s no Drew Brees.”

Brunell, now retired and coaching a high school team in Jacksonville, Florida, along with doing work with ESPN, got that start over Brees under far different circumstances than the current one.

It was the 2009 regular season finale — coincidently also at Carolina — and the with the Saints having the No. 1 seed in the playoffs assured, Sean Payton elected to rest Brees and several other starters. In what amounted to a glorified exhibition game, the Saints lost 23-10.

That’s the only time Brees has missed a game in his 10 seasons with the Saints. In the 98 regular-season games the team has played since then, 3,380 of the 3,390 pass attempts were made by No. 9.

Brees has never even been on the injury report in his decade in New Orleans, although he acknowledged Wednesday that, like every other player, he’s always dealing with pain, including some in his surgically repaired shoulder that now has a bruised rotator cuff.

But for a durable player like Brees, this is something new.

A shoulder injury has to be the most frightening one for a quarterback.

He makes his living with his arm. In Brees’ case, that arm has made him the most accurate passer in NFL history (66.2 percent).

Small wonder Brees wrote in his autobiography, “Coming Back Strong,” that when shredded his shoulder in what turned out to be his final game with San Diego at the end of the 2005 season, he wondered, “Will I ever throw again?”

Fortunately for Brees, he was being treated then and now by Dr. James Andrews, who wound up being able to scope the shoulder, albeit with seven holes and 11 anchors, more than twice the norm for a torn labrum.

“If I had to do that surgery a hundred times, I couldn’t have done it as well as I just did,” Andrews told Brees after it was over.

We all know the rest.

The Chargers let him go, Brees signed with the Saints (after Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins turned him down) and the player once considered damaged goods is headed for the Hall of Fame with a Super Bowl ring.

But the problem is, Brees was 27 then. He’s 36 now, 37 come January.

And that, said Brunell, is the hard part.

“First of all, when you’re smart like Drew, you put in the extra conditioning time because you know as you get older, the harder it is to recover,” he said. “But when you can’t do in your mid-30s what you did in your mid-30s, it can be very frustrating.”

That, Brunell added, is because quarterbacks generally have longer careers than those who play other positions. Brunell last played in 2011 at age 41, and tried to come back the following season with no takers.

Also, when you’ve probably been “The Man,” on your team since you first put on pads, it’s even harder to consider giving it up, or even becoming a backup as Brunell was for the latter part of his career.

“When you’ve been doing this for a long time, you don’t want to think about it ending any time soon,” he said. “But I don’t care if you’re Drew Brees or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, when you get to a certain age you realize that these years are precious.”

There’s also the reality that an injury can make a team look at its veteran quarterback in a different light, especially when he has a monster cap number coming up in 2016.

All of the things Manning did in Indianapolis didn’t keep the Colts from letting him go.

But that’s down the road a bit.

And unlike Manning, no one is saying Brees’ career is in jeopardy.

He pointed out Wednesday that because of the previous surgery, he has paid particular attention to keeping his shoulder fit and stayed in constant contact with Dr. Andrews.

Plus, unlike say hip replacements, labrum screws generally don’t wear out, even if the recipient has thrown thousands of passes since then.

Most importantly, this is a bruise, not a tear, although it’s going to take a lot of rehabbing this week for Brees to be able to play.

“This is one of those injuries you’ve got to be smart with,” he said.

No doubt Brees will be, although overcoming his inner competitor will be difficult.

“Drew’s a fighter,” Brunell said. “He’s got an incredible work ethic.

“I can’t say enough about him. He’s an amazing guy.”

And one who doubtless is doing all he can to play on Sunday.