Freddie Jones remembers it being a post route – 20 yards, on-time throw, touchdown.
Drew Brees remembers the route and throw, but not everything else is clear because in his first NFL game, as a rookie replacing injured starter Doug Flutie in 2001, things were moving a little fast at the time.
“I actually remember (the touchdown) pretty vividly,” Brees said this week. “That game itself is kind of a blur. That was my first action in a regular season game. So ’01, (against the) Kansas City Chiefs, (Doug) Flutie gets hurt and I come in. And that was a touchdown pass at the end of the game to go ahead (with 6:10 left). We were down 19-0, and then take the lead 20-19 with that pass.
“But I remember vividly because breaking the huddle it was like, ‘If we get this coverage, this is a touchdown.’ And sure enough we get the coverage. And it was just like the image that I had in my mind is exactly what happened. And it was just an extremely memorable moment based on everything else that happened in that game. My head was spinning, based on everything else happening in that game – rookie, first game, I just remember the nerves and the butterflies. But once we got settled in, it was fun.”
Since that first touchdown pass, Brees has thrown 495 more entering the New Orleans Saints’ game against Washington on "Monday Night Football" in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With four more, he’ll become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 500 touchdown passes, joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady. And he’s 201 passing yards from establishing a new NFL record, surpassing Manning’s 71,940.
The heights are head-spinning but Jones, in that game on Nov. 4, 2001, said he could see them on the horizon.
“We brought two star players in that year in Drew and (running back) LaDainian (Tomlinson),” said Jones, a tight end who played with Brees in just one of his eight NFL seasons. “When we brought those two guys in, my thoughts for San Diego was the sky was the limit. I thought those two guys would literally tear the roof off of San Diego and for years to come, they would be wearing that gold and blue.
“His mentality toward the game was that he was so humble, and he was so skilled, and he was totally ready for everything that the NFL was going to throw at him. From that standpoint alone, I could definitely see success in his future. There are so many guys that come in and they get caught up with the lights, the camera, the action, the being on the big stage and you could totally see that he wasn’t phased by any of that.”
The eighth game of the season was the only game Brees played in ’01, but he made the most of his appearance: 15 completions in 27 attempts for 221 yards and the touchdown.
“I remember him being in the game,” Jones said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is Drew’s first deal.’ I wasn’t even thinking about, I could possibly have his first (touchdown) catch. But I do remember catching it and I believe I gave him the ball. I think we all kind of figured that this was going to be the first of many for Drew.
“For me, that play was kind of, ‘This is going to be the first of many.’ My quarterback had arrived, he was going to be there a long time, I would be there a long time and we’d have this long career together. That was what I thought with that catch.”
Jones figured that Brees would steady the position, even though at the time, he was a backup to Flutie. But Flutie was 39 years old, Brees was the Chargers’ second-round draft pick and the team was moving past the failed Ryan Leaf experiment (1998-2000) as quickly as possible.
“I guess the interesting thing about Drew coming in as a rookie was, we had just come off of Ryan Leaf,” Jones said. “And I love the guy (Leaf), and not to bring anything negative into the conversation – but Drew as a whole coming in from Purdue was a lot older than his years. So, him on the field was just like playing with an old veteran. So to hear that he’s still playing at the ripe old age of his high 30s is interesting.”
Playing, and at a high level. Brees currently leads the league in completion percentage (75.8), is eighth in passing yards (1,295) and hasn’t thrown an interception in 161 attempts. Dating to the 2017 regular-season finale, he has gone a career-high five straight games without an interception.
“He was going to study the game,” Jones said. “He was there to study the game, he was there to get better and probably the biggest compliment that I could pay to him was, I’m in the weight room trying to get bigger and stronger and faster, he was doing those things but the other side of it was, this guy was studying the game.
“I think that he understood that we didn’t just bring him in to be a backup quarterback. He wasn’t our first pick in the draft, but there was a lot of expectations for him and the future that he would have in San Diego when he came.”
Brees didn’t get to fulfill the expectations with the Chargers. He has with the Saints, and then some, as he pursues yet another NFL milestone.