clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Time Bandits Who Changed Football

Drew Brees and Tom Brady defined an era of football. Then they stuck around long enough to usher in the next one.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Brady and Drew Brees first met in a dull Big Ten game in October 1999. Purdue played so poorly—Boilermaker receivers dropped more than 10 passes—that coach Joe Tiller said he was going to seek out Purdue’s baseball coach. “Then I’m going to borrow a bat and whack them between the eyes.” The New York Times noted that the game marked a failure to launch Brees’s Heisman Trophy campaign. Brady’s most notable accomplishment in Michigan’s win was, once again, keeping his Wolverines quarterback rival, Drew Henson, on the bench for all but three passes. No one could feel the ground shifting below their feet. No one much cared about the game at all. Except Tiller, evidently.

Across professional football, at that exact time, things were changing. Dan Marino was in his final season, and John Elway had retired six months prior. Steve Young played his last game the week before Michigan-Purdue. Brady was drafted in 2000; Brees the following year—together, they helped replace those players, then hung around long enough to play with the players who will replace them. This weekend, they will meet in the playoffs as two quarterbacks who defined one era and just kept going into the next. They changed football and adapted as it changed around them. They are no longer the two best quarterbacks in the sport, as they have so often been in the past, but they are still here.

It was not exactly obvious that their meeting in Ann Arbor was some portal to the next 21 years of NFL football. Neither went on to be a first-round pick, and the game wasn’t so exciting that both players hit you over the head with visions of what was to come, as Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes’s famous 66-59 meeting in 2016 did. That Oklahoma–Texas Tech game was the football equivalent of the Back to the Future scene when Chuck Berry’s fictional cousin calls him to tell him about rock ’n’ roll music. There have been many college games—Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson in 2016 was another—that foretold the future of football; Brees-Brady I is not among them.

Sunday’s divisional-round game between Brady’s Bucs and Brees’s Saints, however, is historic. Brady and Brees are the top two passing leaders in league history, with each of them having thrown for 7,000 more yards than anyone else. When they entered the league, Marino and Elway held the first and second spots. Unlike those passers, Brees and Brady have played so long that they are overlapping with the players who will break their records—Mahomes, for instance, is averaging almost 28 yards more per game in his career than Brees’s career mark. But Brady and Brees helped change the game to the point that Marino and Elway now rank sixth and 10th, respectively, on the all-time passing list. Marino was the only player to have passed for 5,000 yards in a single season when Brady and Brees entered the league. Brees has surpassed Marino’s mark four times, and Brady has surpassed it once. Elway’s career-best season was 4,030 yards. That was 35th on the all-time single-season yardage list the year before Brady entered the league. It’s now 185th.

It is unwise to say there will never be another group like the current elders of the game because they’ve probably already arrived—wait until you see Mahomes and Deshaun Watson’s numbers at the end of their careers. Brady and Brees have provided a road map on how to age and still win in modern football. Brady tweeted a joke about the Bucs-Saints game appearing on the History channel, which means he’s now so old that he’s telling dad jokes.

Football careers previously had a rhythm that this older generation of QBs has discarded. I’ve dubbed them the “forever quarterback,” but in Brady’s case, that may be underselling it. Brady is a gridiron Doctor Who, traveling through space and time and regenerating when needed to adapt to his surroundings. The comparison is not literal, of course: On one side is an immortal time traveler who wins every time; on the other is Doctor Who, a British television show. Brady has traversed three distinct eras of football and done what needed to be done in each.

Both players have changed this year, just in different ways: Brady, at age 43, adjusted to Bruce Arians’s office by throwing an astounding 9.1 air yards per pass attempt, up from 7.6 in his last season with the Patriots. He’s thrown for the fifth-most yards of his career this season and the most deep-passing yards. Brees, age 41, is throwing shorter passes even by his standards: His 6 air yards per attempt are down from 6.4 last year and 7.1 from the year before. No player in football threw the ball 20 yards down the field more often than Brady this season. Brees ranked 32nd in that metric and had fewer deep-passing attempts than Dak Prescott, who played only five games before a season-ending injury. Having said that, Brees had five touchdowns on such plays and zero interceptions—only four starters this year had no picks on deep passes. Brady, for his part, has 12 picks, but when you consider how turnover-centric Arians’s offense can be, Brady has overperformed in that area. As Pro Football Focus put it, Brady “is taking a lot of the risk out of Bruce Arians’s high-risk” offense.

Sunday will be the third time Brady and Brees have met this season and the first time they’ve matched up in the playoffs, which is no surprise given that they’ve spent most of their careers in different conferences. They nearly met in the Super Bowl two years ago, but a blown pass interference call cost New Orleans the NFC championship. With both playing in the NFC South this season, they’ve made up for lost time with two regular-season meetings, and it will likely be the last time they ever face each other since Brees is expected to retire and move to the broadcast booth after the Saints’ season finishes. It is the oldest quarterback matchup in history, but that distinction is sort of a formality—Brady’s matchups against older quarterbacks have frequently rewritten the record books for oldest combined age in a playoff game. Two years ago, Brady set the record against Philip Rivers, who was drafted by the Chargers in 2004 as Brees’s replacement.

Brady and Brees will leave football different than they found it. Both quarterbacks helped nudge the spread revolution forward at all levels in their own little ways—Purdue’s offense, led by Brees, perfected Tiller’s “basketball on grass” spread offense. Brady’s 2007 Patriots team liberally borrowed from then-Florida coach Urban Meyer and the college game on how to use the whole field. Neither Brees nor Brady can run the most modern version of the spread—they aren’t exactly mobile—but part of its ubiquity can be traced back to some of their success deploying it at the NFL level. After a decade or so of arguing about it, there is zero doubt that the college-influenced spread offense has taken over whatever “pro-style” meant, and Brees and Brady have continued to thrive.

The rest of this weekend’s playoff games will feature mostly youth at quarterback—the AFC has two 24-year-olds and two 25-year-olds starting, who all came up in wildly different offensive systems than Brees and Brady, beginning with youth football. Even Aaron Rodgers, an elder statesman of the game compared to other playoff quarterbacks, is six years younger than Brady. All of this offensive success was helped along by the passing boom, which started in 2011. That’s the start of an unprecedented scoring uptick in the past decade that dovetailed with rules that favored offenses, like practice time restrictions and officiating changes, as well as a critical mass of talented quarterbacks and offensive minds that took advantage of it all. Quarterbacks like Brady and Brees had advantages previous generations didn’t have and they were so talented they didn’t need them. 2011 is the B.C./A.D. of offensive football. Brees and Brady were, not surprisingly, the two most prolific passers that year. This transformation of the sport during their careers is the lowest-stakes version possible of the adage about World War I, that the soldiers arrived on horseback and left the war in tanks. Playing football for the past 20 years means you saw everything about the game change.

Are there lessons to glean from these two quarterbacks? Sure, but not many. They obviously have benefited from having historically good coaches alongside them. Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees have developed some of the most efficient and smartest offenses in history. Bill Belichick was primarily known as a defensive coach, but he did a handful of crucial things for Brady during their time in New England. The first, obviously, is to help manage and coach up the players around him, but also give him tips on what defenses will do to him. Former Patriots assistant Dean Pees revealed this year that Belichick spent less than an hour in defensive meetings; instead, Peas said, per For the Win: “[Belichick] did an incredible job of sitting with Tom and we’re playing the Jets or something and he’s telling Tom, ‘Here’s what to look for. Here’s what that safety’s showing you. Here’s what the linebacker’s showing you.’ I mean, what a great tool to have a guy like that, with that experience, sitting with your quarterback, teaching him how to read defenses.”

Another similarity between the two players is ruthless competitiveness and work ethic, though that is common with most great quarterbacks. Players who’ve worked out with Brady have told me he’ll be furious at himself for a pass that’s an inch off the target at a casual workout in June. Some of Brees’s backups have told me Brees will treat a paddleboard race like the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. None of this is earth-shattering behavior from a star quarterback—they are mostly all like this, but that’s because it’s pretty much a barrier for entry to play the hardest job in sports.

The real commonality is these are two players who came along at the right time and knew what to do with that time. They knew how to weave themselves into the fabric of the sport. It will be remarkable to see Mahomes when he’s 43 and the records he’ll have. And how his 2038 playoff matchup with Brady will go.