Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees, a quarterback matchup for the ageless

The Bucs and Saints' future Hall of Famers will become the first over-40 quarterbacks to meet in an NFL game.
Tom Brady and Drew Brees have played against each other five times, but never when both were over 40 years of age.
Tom Brady and Drew Brees have played against each other five times, but never when both were over 40 years of age. [ BILL FEIG | Associated Press (2017) ]
Published Sept. 11, 2020

TAMPA — For all the water, vitamins, extra sleep and avocado ice cream, Tom Brady looks better than he did the day he entered the league. He plays better, too.

Personal trainers and plyometrics have stretched more than his aging muscles, they’ve extended his career.

Win or lose Sunday, Brady, 43, and the Saints' Drew Brees, 41, will post another victory over Father Time by becoming the oldest pair of quarterbacks to start an NFL game.

Related: Bucs a destination team, instant contender? That’s the Tom Brady effect

Both have written plenty of pages in the history books, but this game represents more.

Brady is making his first start for the Bucs after 20 seasons in New England where he won six Super Bowls with the Patriots. He has a two-year, $50 million contract and has expressed a desire to play until he’s 47.

No one is snickering.

Brees is playing his 20th season for the Saints and would like to slip one more Super Bowl ring on his finger before he pulls on a headset in the broadcast booth.

“Hey, this time, man, I’m on borrowed time,” Brees said. “I got nothing to lose.”

Longer expiration dates

Saints quarterback Drew Brees hasn't faced Tom Brady all that many times, but now that Brady is with the division rival Bucs, that changes.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees hasn't faced Tom Brady all that many times, but now that Brady is with the division rival Bucs, that changes. [ DAVID GRUNFELD | Associated Press ]

Saints coach Sean Payton recalled the image of Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson smoking a cigarette before the first AFC-NFL championship game, later to be known as the Super Bowl.

“The way that players like Tom and Drew are going to play in this game kind of have broken the rules relative to the age and how far they’ve gone into their careers, and I think you’ll continue to see that more and more,” Payton said. "We know more now relative to recovery, we know more now relative to sleep and nutrition, and I think we’ll point to two players like that.

“I just think the drive and determination, the skill set, when you put those things together you get rare players, so I think we’ll continue to see players training that way longer and taking care of their body in a different way as we learn."

Related: Wait for it: Bucs stint may make or break Tom Brady’s legacy

Brees owns a 3-2 record over Brady in the league, with two of those wins coming while he played for the San Diego Chargers. That doesn’t include the loss his Purdue Boilermakers suffered to Michigan at the Big House in 1999.

Barring injury, they will meet twice this season, although neither could have anticipated competing in a fan-less Superdome during a 100-year pandemic. Theirs is a bit of a mutual admiration society.

“Listen, I’ve got a ton of respect for Tom and all that he’s accomplished in his career,” Brees said. “I’m sure he’s pretty rejuvenated being down there and having the opportunity with a new team and obviously he has a great team around him and a lot of great skill position players and a really good defense as well. They’re in our division now and we’re both fighting for the same thing.”

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Related: As long as Tom Brady has the ball, Bucs are running his offense

Brady knows that Brees and Payton have a huge advantage Sunday, having been together for 215 games since 2006. This will be the first game for Brady under coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, so nobody is sure what to expect.

“Obviously, when you go against great players like Drew, and a great team like that, you know there’s not a lot of margin of error,” Brady said. “That’s the biggest difference. Sometimes you go up against lesser experienced players — at certainly the quarterback position — maybe some defenses or some teams aren’t as well-rounded as others. But the Saints are not one of those teams. ... They’ve got everything. There’s not going to be any margin of error, which is why they’re tough to beat (and) why they’re always in the playoffs, always competing for Super Bowls. ... It’s going to be a tough game.”

‘Prolong your prime’

Not that Tom Brady was slowing down before coming to Tampa Bay, but he certainly seems to have an extra spring in his step with the Bucs.
Not that Tom Brady was slowing down before coming to Tampa Bay, but he certainly seems to have an extra spring in his step with the Bucs. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

How have they done it? Both are healthier than the vegetable aisle at Whole Foods.

In addition to their improved nutritional habits, changes in the game have contributed to their longevity.

Rules governing contact with the quarterback, establishing a narrow strike zone, have reduced the number of injuries at the position.

Offensive coordinators have taken advantage of the rules and spread the field with five receivers to create quick, easy passes, get the football out of their hands and avoid hits.

They each also enlist the help of throwing coach Tom House, who was the Texans Rangers pitching coach in the 1980s and 90s. What’s notable about those teams is that many of their pitchers played well into their 40s. The Rangers pitchers would throw footballs to warm up as House realized poor mechanics would mean the ball wouldn’t spin a tight spiral.

“That’s part of the evolution of the game, too, and science,” Brees said. “Every NFL team’s approach to how you’re training, how you’re recovering, how you’re caring for players, how we’re preparing for the offseason. ...

"I’ve always used the term ‘prolong your prime.’ At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do. Father Time is going to get us at some point. We’re trying to beat him out right now.”

Related: Bucs about to learn the price of winning with Tom Brady

Both quarterbacks know they must try to outplay the other. Neither wants to give the other defense an inch.

Each has an array of weapons. Brady’s move to Tampa Bay was in large part to surround himself with receivers such as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. The Bucs added Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy to the running back room with starter Ronald Jones.

The Saints have playmakers everywhere Brees looks, including receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, running back Alvin Kamara and backup quarterback Taysom Hill.

“I know this. There’s a mindset that you have to be near perfect,” Brees said. “There’s such a great sense of urgency to maximize each and every opportunity because you know that’s what he’s doing on the other side of the ball.”

While Brees may be playing on borrowed time, Brady shows no signs of slowing down. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has said he wants to play until he’s 45. The Packers' Aaron Rodgers is talking about playing until he’s at least 40.

“Will this become a trend? It just depends on the commitment level of an athlete,” Brady said.

Only four other quarterbacks — George Blanda, Earl Morrall, Vinny Testaverde and Brett Favre ― have played 20 NFL seasons. Leftwich, the former Jags and Steelers quarterback who is only 40, knows it’s a remarkable feat. But he believes more will come after Brady and Brees.

“I think these two guys put the blueprint out,” Leftwich said. "I think if you’re a young guy right now, that’s what you’re thinking. ‘I’m trying my best to get to 20 years.' I know if I was 23 or 24 right now and I had an opportunity to see the blueprint that these guys put out, I’d be trying to everything possible to do the same thing they did. ...

“There’s guys right now that are showing you. Especially at the level these two are still playing at. It’s amazing.”