SAN DIEGO (AP) _ The day after the San Diego Chargers assured themselves of their first winning season since 1995, LaDainian Tomlinson made a pitch for the front office to bring back quarterback Drew Brees next year.
Brees has been the biggest catalyst in the Chargers' surprising turnaround from NFL doormat a year ago to the brink of clinching their first playoff berth in nine seasons.
Asked about Brees on Monday, Tomlinson said there's no question the players want him back.
Why break up something that's not broken?'' Tomlinson said.That's the way I feel about it. I hope I don't get in trouble.''
The Chargers (9-3), who hold a two-game lead in the AFC West after escaping with a 20-17 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, aren't likely to hold anything against their star running back, who became just the ninth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons.
Everybody can voice their opinion,'' general manager A.J. Smith said.We all do. It's America.''
Brees will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. After struggling last year along with most of the rest of the Chargers during an NFL-worst 4-12 season he's played so well that he's kept prized rookie Philip Rivers on the bench except for brief mop-up duty in a 26-point win over New Orleans a month ago.
Rivers was given a $40 million contract after holding out for much of training camp, which kept him from competing with Brees. With the Chargers making that kind of a commitment to the rookie, most people think Brees will be gone after this season and Rivers will become the starter.
Smith said that's not necessarily the case. He said the Chargers are expected to have about $21 million in salary cap space for next season, which could allow them to designate Brees as their ``franchise'' player. The Chargers would have to pay Brees about $9 million while paying Rivers about $3 million.
That clearly tells you that if we chose to, we could franchise him and continue,'' Smith said.If you don't have that kind of cap space, you can't do anything. We did it by design. You build a football team and then protect it with cap space. It gives you options.''
The Chargers, who host Tampa Bay on Sunday, won't make a decision on Brees until after the season.
If we had had just $1 million in cap space, it would be crystal clear _ he'd be headed for the airport for a new team,'' Smith said.That's not necessarily the case. I don't know what we're going to do, but I appreciate all the information we're getting. Everybody has an opinion. We'll let everybody know when we make a decision, including the players and L.T. and the fans.''
If the Chargers franchise Brees, they could always try to trade him, although any interested team would want him to sign a new, cap-friendly deal.
Does Brees want to come back?
``Absolutely, if it works out,'' he said.
Brees said he's gotten the feeling his teammates want him back, especially the ones who were here the last few dismal seasons.
``I'm just glad to know I have all those guys on my side,'' Brees said.
Brees has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this year, compared to 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year, when he was benched for five straight games and yanked from two others.
He had his least-productive game this season on Sunday, when he had zero touchdown passes and threw one interception, ending his team-record streak of 194 consecutive passes without one.
Brees said he felt like an afterthought during the offseason, especially when the Chargers obtained Rivers in a draft-day deal with the New York Giants.
Four years ago I was supposed to be the quarterback of the future, and now Philip Rivers is supposed to be the quarterback of the future. So where does that leave me?'' Brees said.Then you realize, worry about the things that I can control. I can't control the guys they bring in, whether they're free agents or draft picks. They're always trying to upgrade every position. That's kind of the joke, they're always bringing in someone to replace you.''
Tomlinson and Brees were drafted on the same day in 2001. Now they're winners, and poised to reach the playoffs.
I'm going to steal a quote that I heard Bill Parcells say last year _ they can't call us losers anymore,'' Tomlinson said.Now, with that said, how far are we going to take this thing? Our goal is to take it all the way to the Super Bowl. With that in mind, we've still got to focus and not get caught up with everything that's going on around us.''