CHICAGO -- When Sean Payton became the New Orleans Saints' head coach, his first priority was finding a quarterback who could run his version of the West Coast offense and become a leader on and off the field.
The San Diego Chargers let Brees hit the free agent market, so Payton saw an opportunity to pursue the player he wanted.
There were a couple of problems, though. One was the Miami Dolphins, who also were searching for a new starting quarterback. The other was Brees' health. He was coming off major surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder.
The Dolphins ultimately decided to take a chance on a quarterback with a gimpy knee (Daunte Culpepper) instead of one with a shredded shoulder. But Payton was willing to gamble that Brees would return to full health.
Payton's risk turned into a huge reward. Brees has not only made a remarkable recovery, he has led the Saints to an improbable season that has taken them to their first-ever NFC Championship game on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
Brees finished second in the NFL MVP voting after leading the league with 4,418 passing yards, including eight 300-yard games. He was third in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (96.2). He completed 356 of 554 pass attempts (64.3 percent), threw only 11 interceptions and was sacked just 18 times.
His performance earned him first-team All-Pro honors and the respect of his opponents.
"He's passed for over 4,000 yards," Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. "I don't even drive that far. He's unbelievable right now. He's at the top of his game. He's got a strong arm. The surgery must have helped. Great doctor."
That doctor is James Andrews, a noted orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham, Ala., who has repaired body parts on numerous professional athletes. Fixing Brees' shoulder proved to be particularly challenging because he had a completely torn labrum and a partial rotator cuff tear.
After his initial examination, Andrews told Brees that only one in about 500 shoulder separations ends up as badly as the one Brees sustained.
"I think we all knew how bad it was," Brees said, "but we were all optimistic."
Not everyone shared Brees' optimism. The Chargers offered him an incentive-based contract to stay, but it was obvious to Brees that they wanted to turn the offense over to Philip Rivers, the fourth overall pick of the 2004 draft.
The Saints and Dolphins were the only other teams that showed any interest, but the Saints never backed off of their commitment to sign Brees.
"Really, the Saints were the only team that felt a hundred percent confidence in me that I was going to come back," said Brees, who signed a one-year offer of $10 million guaranteed, with options for five more years. "They had as much confidence in me as I had in myself. That meant a lot and that is the reason that I'm here."
The Saints didn't have to go after Brees. They could have taken one of the top quarterbacks -- Vince Young, Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler -- in last year's draft.
But in Brees, Payton saw a player that would help the Saints immediately. He viewed Brees as someone with a track record as a winner in the NFL and a tireless worker who stays at the team's practice facility as late as the coaches studying film.
Payton also knew Brees would push himself to recover from his injury.
"The risk was in the injury, so I think the feeling was knowing everything else about the player, including his work habits and commitment that he would do everything they tell him to do in his rehabilitation," Payton said this week. "He's a guy that would work hard and be patient, so it was more of an investment in the person more than it was in the player. We knew that Drew was a guy who would stay on the plan and that's what happened."
After overcoming a surgery that might have ended most athletes' careers, Brees has put the Saints one game away from their first Super Bowl appearance.
And while he lost the MVP award to San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Brees has won a lot of praise for producing a comeback story that fits perfectly with that of the Saints and the city they represent.
"It's been a heck of a ride this year, and it wouldn't have been possible without Drew driving the car," said Saints center Jeff Faine. "There are a lot of good quarterbacks out there, but we're happy with the one we've got. He has all the talent and intangibles you look for in a quarterback."