Former Toledoan guided Brees through Purdue careerWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Retired Purdue football coach Joe Tiller of Toledo was recently moving some memorabilia around in what he affectionately calls his “Man room,” in the Tiller’s new home in Buffalo, Wyo., when he ran across a football signed by the four Heisman Trophy finalists in 2000.
Finishing fourth that year was running back Ladanian Tomlinson, who has gone on to star with the San Diego Chargers. Drew Brees, Tiller’s first recruited quarterback at Purdue in 1997, was third in the voting behind quarterbacks Josh Heupel of Oklahoma and winner Chris Weinke of Florida State.
Weinke’s inglorious NFL career consisted of a 2-18 record as a starter and an NFL record 14 consecutive losses in a single season while with the Carolina Panthers. Heupel was the victim of tendinitis in the shoulder of his throwing arm canceling a possible NFL career.
You just never know.
What so many people with at least some football knowledge thought they knew about Brees was that he was too short, his throwing arm was too weak and he was only successful at Purdue because he played in a system that was totally geared to his respective talents.
You just never know.
Oh, by the way, Brees will be participating in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 as the record-setting quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. But even now he’s the “other” quarterback in the match-up with crème de la crème QB Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Tiller never sold Brees short even at 6 feet, which is what Brees is listed at, much to his dismay. Playing at that height in the NFL is a tall order, but seeing is believing and Brees saw his way to an NFL record 70.6 pass completion percentage in leading the league’s highest scoring offense this season.
“It’s interesting that he’s a guy who’s still playing (from among those three Heisman quarterback finalists in 2000),” Tiller said. “Drew didn’t play at as high of a profile school as Oklahoma or Florida State and he never had the type of receivers those types of schools had. And yet he was more productive at the collegiate level than those guys and a hell of a lot more productive at the pro level than those guys were.
“People ask me if I’m surprised about this in regard to Drew. Nothing surprises me about Drew Brees. He’s just an extraordinary talent and individual.”
The same things that were questioned in regard to Brees’ supposed shortcomings entering the professional level led to concerns among college recruiters who had charted Brees as he went undefeated as a starter his junior and senior years at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas.
Tiller didn’t care. He recruited Brees the last two years while Tiller was still the coach at Wyoming but Brees wasn’t interested at the time.
When Tiller got the Purdue job in 1997 he again went after Brees and this time Brees was interested. Tiller’s spread offense, which he called, “basketball-on-grass,” with its fast-break concept built around a high-percentage short passing game, became a very successful novelty in the Big Ten and Brees was the perfect engineer. He went on to break just about every Big Ten passing record in garnering the conference’s most valuable player award in 2000. His presence rocketed the Boilermakers’ previously dormant football program to prominence. Tiller became the winningest football coach in Purdue history and in the process took the Boilermakers to 10 bowl games before retiring in 2008. All thanks in huge part to Brees.
“We really liked him because of our style of offense and we knew he could be successful because he’s a very smart young man,” said Tiller, who will return to Toledo next fall to attend his 50th Rogers High School class reunion. “We also liked him because he was very competitive and tended to elevate the play of those around him. He was a winner.
“He threw a great pass. We even wanted him to be 2 inches taller than he really was. When he went to the NFL combine in Indianapolis they measured his height and the guy called out, ‘six feet, one-quarter inch!’ Drew said, ‘I’m 6’1”, measure me again.’ The guy does and yells out, ‘Six feet, one-quarter inch!’ Drew just shook his head and walked away. In his mind he was 6’1.” ”
And then there’s the thing about arm strength, but Tiller thinks he’s got that figured out, too, after finally being able to watch professional football on Sundays now that he’s no longer coaching at the college level.
“We also liked him because he throws the short to intermediate ball maybe better than anyone else, certainly as good as anyone in the game,” Tiller stated. “He’s got a great touch. The thing I noticed was one of the knocks on Drew coming out of college was that he always ends up in that shotgun. I’m watching the NFL on Sundays now and that midget quarterback at Pittsburgh (6’7” Ben Roethlisberger), he’s lining up in the shotgun, too. Everybody is in the shotgun anymore in the NFL. Even Sir Peyton is in the shotgun the majority of time.
“I tried to figure that out and I decided that with the speed of the defensive linemen and the speed of the linebackers on blitzes, I didn’t see anyone throw the ball over 40 yards this year. They didn’t have time to throw it over 40 yards. They might have thrown it over 40 when protection broke down, the guy took off scrambling, and he might have flipped it up the field for a home run ball. I don’t see anyone throwing the football way up the field. If you don’t line up in the shotgun and throw the ball when you plant that back foot you’re going to end up on your fanny.
“The stuff they criticized Drew for, everyone in the league is doing now. Go figure. He also has that uncanny sense to be able to feel the rush coming. The good quarterbacks have a feel for it. They don’t look for the rush, they don’t see it because they’re looking up the field, but they can feel it.
“Drew’s a guy who feels it. He skips sideways and he has just enough speed to get outside the pocket and he’s still extremely accurate.”
Tiller also has an explanation for that exceptional asset.
“One of the things physically about Drew, he might have been a little shorter than people wanted him to be, but he has very big hands,” Tiller said. “He has unusually long thumbs. You don’t pay any attention to those kinds of things unless you’re around a guy for four years. You’re up close and you notice how he can grip the ball the way he does. I’m sure it helps him in the way he controls his passes.”
Brees was a second-round pick by the San Diego Chargers in the 2001 NFL draft. Tiller was miffed.
“I thought he would excel in the NFL and I was not happy that he was selected in the second round,” Tiller added. “I thought he was a first-round talent. Someplace you have to factor in productivity. The Big Ten is a good conference. This guy still holds Big Ten passing records. I don’t know what the NFL is looking for. He’s got good feet, a great mind, he’s very competitive and he’s got a great touch on the ball. I know he’s not 6’2” or 6’3” but he’s a winner.”