GREEN BAY – They last met 36 months ago inside the Superdome. Drew Brees was a 35-year-old quarterback then. He did not play like he was 35.
The game went something like an avalanche. Tied at halftime, Brees buried the Green Bay Packers with three straight touchdown passes in the second half. The New Orleans quarterback finished with 311 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the 44-23 Saints victory. He threw only five incompletions.
Three years later, Brees meets the Packers again Sunday when the Saints enter Lambeau Field. He’s 38 now, an age that usually signifies the dead end for an NFL quarterback’s career. But Drew Brees is not playing like he’s 38.
His game should be fading into the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. Dom Capers, the Packers defensive coordinator, said there isn’t any slippage on film.
“If there is,” Capers said, “I don’t see it. He’s always been a real rhythm-and-timing thrower. He gets the ball out and has a good feel in terms of hitting receivers on the move. He’s very accurate, and so his whole game is to get the ball out quick.”
Brees represents the next wave in the evolution of the game’s most important position. With rare exceptions, a quarterback’s shelf life used to start trending downhill by his mid-30s. Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham had their last, great seasons before turning 35. Four decades later, the same could be said for Joe Montana and Dan Marino.
By their 38th birthday, John Elway, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts, Montana and Marino all were either in their final season or already out of the league.
Warren Moon was first to lift the quarterback age ceiling, playing at a Pro Bowl level as a 41 year old. More than 20 years later, Brett Favre pushed his prime past his 40th birthday. Tom Brady, leading the NFL in passing yards this season, is doing the same in New England.
“Quarterbacks in general, 20 years before now, if we went back,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “they were smoking cigarettes at halftime. I think we’ve learned a lot about the nutrition, weight training, flexibility — all the things that apply to playing longer. I think the game itself, as we’ve moved to the shotgun and other elements, I think you’ve seen that average age gradually increase. You see some quarterbacks in our league have some of their better years later in their career as opposed to earlier.”
Two years from his age 40 season, Brees could be the fourth quarterback to play at a high level beyond their 30s. His longevity could provide inspiration for Aaron Rodgers, who turns 34 in December. Rodgers has routinely said he doesn’t plan for his career to end before his 40th birthday. At one time, his goal would seem impossible, if not downright silly.
Brees is showing it’s more than plausible.
At this stage in his career, Brees’ decline could come any time. Statistically, the Saints quarterback has shown no diminishing signs this season. His passer rating (fourth in the NFL at 103.3) is on track to exceed triple digits for the fourth time in five years. He’s ninth in the league with 10 touchdowns despite already missing a week with the bye. Among quarterbacks in the top 10, only Alex Smith has thrown fewer than Brees’ two interceptions.
Perhaps most impressive is Brees’ 7.3 yards per pass, almost identical to his career 7.5-yard average. Late in his career, Brees is still able to make plays passing downfield.
“I had a chance to chop it up with him a little bit during my Pro Bowl experience,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said, “just to see the work he has put into this game. You know, he's an elite quarterback. He's like another Aaron Rodgers, a Tom Brady. He's up there with the best of the best, and he's been doing it for a long time. He's seen a lot of disguises, he's seen a lot of different things.”
There is humor to be found in Brees’ longevity, that perhaps the best way to avoid declining athleticism late in one’s career is to have very little to begin with. A 28-year-old Brees was a statue in the pocket, standing in cement. He was too short entering the NFL, only 6-foot. Brees couldn’t compensate with his legs. He ran 40 yards in 4.83 seconds, barely beating Packers 304-pound rookie defensive tackle Montravius Adams’ 4.87-second dash.
Rodgers, a dual threat from the beginning, will have to adjust his play style more as he approaches 40.
Brees can make all the throws, but he’s always been more renowned for his mind. Packers safeties coach Darren Perry, who played against many of those Hall of Fame quarterbacks from the 1990s as a defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, marvels at Brees’ field vision.
“He can almost look as if he’s throwing the ball blind,” Perry said, “because he knows where everybody is supposed to be. He’s a tremendous challenge, plays fast, makes quick decisions. People talk about his lack of height, arm strength, but you don’t see it when he’s out there playing. He can still get the ball in tight windows, he can still throw the seam routes, he can still get the ball outside the numbers. So some of those things that you hear people say when they start giving you the statistics and, ‘Oh, he can’t do this, he can’t throw outside the numbers.’ We can’t buy into that, because he can still make the throws.
“Like a fine wine, he’s getting better with age.”
It isn’t coincidence quarterbacks are playing better, later into their careers. In recent years, NFL rules are designed to protect a team’s business interest. Quarterbacks are a franchise’s most valuable commodity, and thus they are safeguarded against contact.
A hit like Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr put on Aaron Rodgers last Sunday used to be commonplace. Now, quarterbacks are dressed in bubble wrap. It’s simply the way of the modern NFL. Less contact preserves passers longer.
Coach Mike McCarthy said advanced schematics also help. The Saints, especially, are known for combining vertical and horizontal route concepts in the same play, confusing defenses as they stretch the whole field.
What makes Brees especially difficult, Capers said, is he can thumb through his progressions almost simultaneously. Brees has been sacked only four times this season, three fewer than any other team has allowed.
“He’s such a student of the game,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He knows where he’s going to go when he reads a blitz, the dump offs. He just knows where he’s going with the ball, which makes it incredibly difficult for not only DBs to make plays — unless you’re press man — but also pass rushers to get after him.
“Every game that we’ve played them, whether it’s here or there, they’ve done well on offense. So we’ve got to expect their best shot, and we’ll see how much the game plan changes for them, but I’d like to think it’s the same thing. They’re going to air it out. Drew’s kind of the thing that makes that whole offense tick.”