Rivers' holdout opens door for Brees

CARSON, Calif. -- The Chargers are up the Rivers without their quarterback.

After meticulously engineering the Eli Manning trade to build for the future, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith doesn't have his prized acquisition, quarterback Philip Rivers. Once Rivers failed to accept a final proposal last Sunday at 5 p.m., the Chargers bunkered in for what might be a long holdout. As far as what is called the base contract -- what the draft choice reasonably expects to make -- Manning received a six-year, $45 million deal that included $20 million in guarantees.

Rivers, the fourth pick, lowered his demand to $44 million over six. The Chargers say they offered more than $40.4 million over six. River's agent, Jimmy Sexton, said the offer was $39 million. The guarantees and structure were pretty much in agreement. After Sunday, though, the Chargers took the position that their offer was the best they would do, and the test of wills began.

For Chargers fan, it was a case of déjà vu. Their franchise player, LaDainian Tomlinson, missed most of his first camp. Cornerback Quentin Jammer held out forever as a rookie. Now, it's Rivers. Timing is everything, and this impasse could cost the team the use of its quarterback. Unless there is a breakthrough in negotiations by sometime next week, Rivers will have a hard time being the opening-day starter.

Rivers and Patriots tight end Ben Watson are the only remaining holdouts among the draft choices. The plan was to build around Tomlinson and Rivers. The roster is young. The future looks bright with two first-round choices next year. But, the Rivers holdout forges a huge roadblock in the plans.

Emotionally, the holdout potentially strains the long-term relationship between Rivers and the Chargers although that might be a little overrated. Tomlinson went through his holdout and survived. This is his team now. Teammates follow his lead. Management watches his improving skills with awe. He's the best running back in football and only getting better.

"That's the bad part about football, the business side," Tomlinson said. "You just have to stay positive. During my holdout, I was starting to think, 'Did these guys really want me, did they want me to play for them?' "

Immediately, though, Tomlinson was able to separate the business side from the football side. He rushed for 1,236 yards on 339 carries and scored 10 rushing touchdowns as a rookie. In three years, he's put up some of the greatest running stats in NFL history -- 4,564 yards rushing, a 4.5-yard career average, 37 touchdowns and 238 catches for 1,580 yards.

Of course, it's much easier for a running back to come out of a holdout and get off to a running start. Running backs move on instinct. The toughest task is learning to block and protect the quarterback in blitz situations. For quarterbacks, missed time is deadly.

"It depends on how fast he gets in," Tomlinson said. "I hope he gets in next week."

The problem is if the holdout lingers into next week the likelihood is money will be taken off the table, potentially lengthening the holdout. More and more, Drew Brees, who is in the final year of his contract with the Chargers, is looking like the opening day starter.

Throughout the offseason, Brees kept hearing rumbles how the organization was leaning in another direction at quarterback. He's had two years at the helm, but last season was a downer. The team won only four games. His completion percentage dropped from 60.8 to 57.6. His quarterback rating fell from 76.9 to 67.5.

The Chargers let it be known from the beginning of the offseason they were interested in drafting a quarterback. They looked at Manning, Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, but all along, Rivers was the one on their mind. Rivers hit it off well with the Chargers coaching staff at the Senior Bowl.

Before the draft, trade rumors involving Brees spread. Now, as they prepare for their first preseason game, Brees is the leader of the offense.

"I prepare myself every day as if I'm the starter," Brees said. "That's what I believe. I'm not going to prepare any differently. I'm excited about this year. I'm glad last year is behind me and us. I felt like we learned a lot from that. We're not going to let a season like that happen again. It made us stronger."

In some ways, Brees' situation compares a little to his friend Jon Kitna in Cincinnati. The Bengals drafted Carson Palmer last year with the plans to have him learn as a third quarterback. Kitna started and continued to win over his teammates as the leader. Now, Kitna goes to the bench as Palmer takes over as the starter.

For Brees, he just continues to work as the starter until someone tells him to go to the sidelines.

"The thing you've got to know about Brees is that he's a great competitor," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "He's not going to concede anything."

Maybe out of spite, Brees is having a great camp. He's throwing with more accuracy. His decisions when passing the ball are more decisive. If this year turns into an audition for his next job, Brees isn't going to surrender.

"When I was drafted three years ago, my dream was I would be here my entire career," Brees said. "I don't know if that is going to happen. I'm on this team this year. This is going to be my year. Last year was disappointing. I didn't have the year I wanted to have. There were a lot of factors that go into that, but that's water under the bridge."

Or, water along the Rivers, so to speak. Brees is getting more snaps than even expected because not only is Rivers holding out, but Doug Flutie is sidelined for a couple of weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. Brees and Cleo Lemon are getting almost all of the work.

More than any coach in football, Schottenheimer hates quarterback controversies. He's seen, as a player with the Patriots, how a quarterback duel can split a locker room. With Rivers out, Schottenheimer has to think short term and rally this team around Brees.

"Quarterback can -- not will -- affect the dynamics of your football team," Schottenheimer said. "Drew is doing a terrific job. Somebody is going to have to tear the football away from him."

The Chargers aren't blessed with top receivers. Eric Parker (18 catches) and Tim Dwight (14 catches) are the top returning wide receivers. Kevin Dyson is coming off injury-plagued seasons to be the Chargers' No. 1 outside threat.

In the meantime, Brees is trying to work with a shaky offensive line and the team strengths at halfback with Tomlinson and at tight end with rapidly improving Antonio Gates and Josh Norman.

At least Brees has Tomlinson by his side. The running back's goal is 2,500 yards of combined rushing and receiving.

"People may play nine men in the box, and if that happens, we have a great potential for the home run," Tomlinson said. "I think we have receivers who can make plays. I don't worry about having a target on my back."

Tomlinson would have made Rivers' transition a little easy. Unfortunately, nothing is easy with the Rivers situation. This could be a long holdout.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.