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Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and the Era of the Forever QB

Patrick Mahomes II might win MVP but the NFL is still in a golden age of ageless quarterbacks. Players like Brees, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers are getting better as they get older, and they show no signs of slowing down.

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“Nice and old,” Tom Brady deadpanned last week after being told that he and Philip Rivers, at a combined age of 78 years, would be the oldest quarterback pairing in playoff history. This record will be shattered by three years if Brady and Drew Brees face each other in the Super Bowl. In the meantime, during Sunday’s AFC championship game, Brady will help break the record for the biggest disparity in age between quarterbacks in a playoff game when the Patriots play the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes II. Brees’s matchup with Jared Goff in the NFC championship game will be the third highest. It’s not a coincidence—there are not many playoff games anymore in which some quarterback age record is not being threatened.

These are not just fun facts; they are indicative of how much the NFL is changing. A generation of quarterbacks is performing at such a high level into their late 30s and, in some cases, early 40s, that they’re challenging our notions about longevity and team-building. We cannot say they are better than previous generations at their ages, because no comparison exists. A unique class of quarterbacks has emerged, the beneficiaries of advancements in sports science, rule changes, practice limitations, and a league that failed to develop talent at the position for about a decade. Brady (41), Brees (40), Rivers (37), Ben Roethlisberger (36), and Aaron Rodgers (35) are going to spend the next few years rewriting age and passing records.

The aging curve of an NFL quarterback is changing, and the sport will change along with it. Players at the position are getting older. There have been outliers—Warren Moon and Brett Favre played into their 40s—but they did not have this many peers. We don’t know where the aging curve will go because the vast majority of these players are still in their elongated primes.

Historically, quarterbacks have peaked at 29. The passers’ prime usually occurred during the last few years their body was healthy enough to execute at the level their football smarts demanded. This current crop of quarterbacks is getting smarter, as every other generation has, but they have shielded themselves from the physical deterioration that playing the position incurs due to how the modern game operates. Because quarterbacks are so uniquely valuable, they do not get discarded for salary cap reasons like every other position in football, so the old quarterbacks have tenure. They will not leave their posts until they fully decline, which for most hasn’t happened yet. “I think it speaks to how the mental part of the position has developed,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst told me. “That what you require is so hard to find, and it takes such an experienced guy.”

Brady won the MVP at age 40 last season. Brees, who turned 40 this week, broke the record for career completions in September. “I think it’s reasonable to think that some of these guys can play to their middle 40s,” said Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, who studies the physiology of elite athletes.

The NFL currently has a stable of great, young quarterbacks. Presumptive MVP Mahomes, 23, and Goff, 24, will play in their first conference title games this weekend. Andrew Luck, 29, and Russell Wilson, 30, are among the game’s elite. But the sport’s golden generation still plays an outsize role, defying previously established aging trends. Their compensation shows how quickly norms have changed: The record-breaking extension Rodgers signed before the season will put his cap hit at $37 million in 2022 when he’s 38 years old. Brees’s contract will pay him $33.5 million next year, which will be the highest in the league. Even though we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the ages of one group of quarterbacks, teams do not see it as too great of a risk to invest heavily in them.

When I talked to a handful of general managers and coaches about this phenomenon, most took a posture similar to Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who I spoke with earlier this season. Pittsburgh is riding Roethlisberger while it keeps an eye on the future. The Steelers have drafted a quarterback in the first four rounds twice in the past two years, and three times in the past six, but none of those players have unseated Roethlisberger. Peyton Manning was once part of this generation but probably can’t be judged too harshly for his retirement after four neck surgeries. He did manage to win a Super Bowl at 39 years old three years ago, and he’s the oldest passer to do so.

Brees had the best-ever quarterback rating this season among players 37 or older, while Rivers’s 2018 rating was fifth. Brady has three of the top 10 ratings in a season among that same group and five of the top 15. They’ve made such a mockery of age-related records that in November, Brady, at 41, became the oldest player to catch a pass since Jerry Rice caught one at 42 in 2004. Brady could break that record in the coming years.

How did this happen?

Let’s start with rules governing contact. In 2015, Matt Hasselbeck was 40 years old and playing for the Colts. “On Monday mornings, I felt like I did when I was 26,” he said. “But it’s just one hit. It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘I got sacked five times versus one time,’ it’s ‘Did you get that one hit?’”

That “one hit” Hasselbeck, now an analyst at ESPN, was referring to is the kind of contact the NFL has largely succeeded in eradicating by changing the rules in 2018, much to the frustration of its defensive players. During his last season, in a game against Houston, Hasselbeck took a helmet-to-jaw hit from Whitney Mercilus. “I wasn’t eating solid food for a couple of weeks,” said Hasselbeck. “They tested me for a concussion. It wasn’t, but I couldn’t hear out of my right ear. I hurt a joint near my ear. So you get rid of those crown-of-the-helmet hits. You get rid of the full body weight falling on a player.”

“Body weight” was the NFL’s buzzword early this season as roughing-the-passer penalties were being flagged at historical rates. It helped end Hasselbeck’s career, he said, after a hit against the Dolphins in which he took on the full weight of a Miami pass rusher. Earlier that year, he’d taken a hit against Pittsburgh that separated two ribs and hurt his neck. In the three years since he retired, he said the landscape has changed dramatically, and the chances of getting hit like that have reduced significantly. “Those hits get you in a downward spiral,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s one hit that gets you, and then life is miserable.”

“So the NFL took a stance: When the Vikings play the Packers, ‘We are not interested in DeShone Kizer against Trevor Siemian,’” Hasselbeck said, referring to those teams’ backups. “They’ve said, ‘We don’t care if it is unfair to defensive players and the result has been that quarterbacks will get to play longer.’ Those guys, especially Brady and Brees, they could probably play until they are 45 if they really wanted to.” Hasselbeck got a call from a contending team this year asking whether he was in shape and available to sign. He is 43.

Rich Gannon, now a CBS analyst, puts it this way: “As a young quarterback, you hear the play call in your helmet,” Gannon tells me. “You go into the huddle and call the play. As you break the huddle, you’re thinking about the play. You’re thinking, ‘OK, this is seven-step drop, two-jet protection, hot off if the mike and sam come. It’s flanker drive so I’ve got go to flanker to the burst.’ This is happening as you are walking and you are putting your hands under center. Now we are looking at the defense.”

When a veteran quarterback hears the play call, they can typically visualize it immediately and process the footwork, reads, and adjustments that it requires. This, Gannon said, explains the advantage a healthy and old quarterback has. “You’re not even thinking about it,” Gannon said. “When you get in a car you aren’t thinking about putting the key in the ignition. You just do it. That’s how it is. So Brady and Brees process the play instantaneously and start addressing defensive issues immediately: How many safeties are deep, the pressures. … By the time they break the huddle, they are studying the subtle nuances and saying, ‘I like this receiver in that matchup.’ They are so far ahead that they are just having fun. It’s a different world.”

Gannon is one of the historical outliers of a previous generation—he won the MVP in 2002 at 37, making him at the time the oldest MVP since the merger (Brady and Manning have since broken the record). He said nutrition and fitness habits advanced so rapidly during his career that he felt in better shape at 37 than at 25. He thinks the collective bargaining agreement has given older quarterbacks a massive advantage over younger ones. In 2011, two-a-day practices were banned, and offseason contact was severely limited, a far cry from what Gannon called “quarterback school” with Jon Gruden’s Raiders 20 years ago, where passers received hours of instruction on the field and in the film room.

“Now you can go in the weight room, but you can’t talk to coaches,” Gannon said. “You wonder why quarterback play can be so crappy? Look at how many quarterbacks are struggling and how many coaches get fired because of it.”

There’s a theory, according to the people I spoke with, that Brady, Brees, Eli Manning, Rivers, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger benefited from coming into the league during a time of unlimited football education and practice time. These players have aged gracefully because halfway through their tenure, the grueling, physical practices they were accustomed to were virtually banned. Before the 2011 CBA, there were basically no limits on practice time, but now teams can have only 14 padded practices during the regular season. Hasselbeck called the practice restrictions an “absolute game-changer” for his health.

“Quarterbacks now are so good at guarding against overtraining and undertraining,” former Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last fall. “The game is a lot safer, and these quarterbacks have done such a great job at taking advantage of the physiological gains in professional sports and society. They are living healthier lives. There’s so much more technology out there. There was a revolution.”

The technology part of it is not just about science and nutrition—older quarterbacks have also used virtual reality as a way to get practice reps without putting pressure on their bodies.

Gannon points to the success story of one young quarterback: Patrick Mahomes. Andy Reid told Gannon that during the 2017 season, he tasked quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka with being a resource for Mahomes while the staff spent time with starter Alex Smith, who, for his part, also imparted knowledge to Mahomes. Committing that level of instruction to a young player is not universal in the NFL.

The current era is a good one to be a quarterback of any age since innovative schemes from bright, young offensive minds have created a lot of open receivers and easy yardage. Plays move horizontally more than they do vertically. If a quarterback loses arm strength in his late 30s, he can compensate for it. Brees is throwing a yard shorter in the air on his average pass than he did in 2009 and a half-yard shorter than he did in 2015, according to Brady is throwing nearly a full yard less this season than he did in 2017, though both figures are up from 2016. Those college schemes are partly to blame for why there are so few good quarterbacks in their late 20s—the NFL misfired on an entire generation by misunderstanding how to develop spread quarterbacks. As Hasselbeck said: No one was there to take any jobs away from the older players.

When I spoke to McCarthy, I asked him why he thought Rodgers would not miss a beat entering his mid-30s. He talked about Rodgers’s flawless mechanics and his adaptability. Almost all of these older quarterbacks have reinvented themselves a handful of times as the game has shifted every few years, most recently to more of a college-influenced game featuring run-pass options and spread concepts.

Hasselbeck sees a self-fulfilling prophecy in how teams game-plan against older, more experienced quarterbacks. Defensive coordinators assume that they can’t blitz Brady or Brees because they’ve seen everything. Since they don’t face as many blitzes as they should, they stay healthier and perform better. Another way of avoiding contact is to get the ball out quickly. Roethlisberger, Brees, Eli Manning, and Brady all rank among the top 10 in the percentage of passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Drew gets rid of the ball quickly and limits his shots—and Philip has done the same thing. He’s limited the carnage,” said Nick Hardwick, the former Chargers center who played with Brees and Rivers. “Drew told me last year in training camp that everything he does in life is intentional—when he goes to bed every night he writes down what he intends to do the following day. He has this methodical approach—the way he sleeps, the way he moves during the day, and if you do that you can keep your body and mind in a healthy place.”

Hardwick thinks the current Chargers coaching staff has helped Rivers age well. Gannon pointed out that Brady and Brees have had coaching stability for essentially their entire primes. Rodgers had a similar luxury until McCarthy’s firing this season. Hardwick points to Roethlisberger’s Steelers promoting Randy Fichtner from within for their last offensive coordinator hire. Gannon thinks that learning a new offense hurts a quarterback not just for the obvious reasons—that it’s hard and takes time—but because it shrinks the library of plays available.

“Under the last two years under Anthony Lynn, Philip Rivers has been placed into tighter confines playingwise, and I think that’s done him a great service because it’s allowed him to use his greatest asset, which has always been his mental capacity. He can process information unlike any quarterback playing,” Hardwick said. “He is the closest thing to Peyton Manning, a quarterback calling his plays at the line of scrimmage. And Anthony Lynn has really helped him by building the run game and getting rid of the ball much quicker.”

“Both of those guys,” he said. “Have several good years left.”

“The first thing to playing this long is you have to stay motivated,” said the Mayo Clinic’s Joyner, who has studied the way athletes age. “Then you have to avoid catastrophic injury.”

Because there are so few elite quarterbacks and even fewer who have made it to this advanced age, it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about this particular group. Some scientific data suggests that fast-twitch muscles shrink more rapidly than slow-twitch muscles, meaning a quarterback can usually age better than a skill position player. “But speed positions are always involved in high-impact hits, giving and receiving them,” Joyner said, so it’s harder to state plainly whether or not receivers or running backs would age like quarterbacks if they received the same protections from the rules. He also said medical ideas about how arm talent ages are mostly anecdotal. Simply put, most of what we know about how long quarterbacks can play is unfolding in front of us.

Joyner thinks there is a financial factor at play as well—since a great veteran quarterback is worth well north of $20 million a year, he thinks these players not only have the means to spend money on training their bodies but the economic incentive to do so. That, married with the innovations in sports medicine, has made it easier than ever to continue a career. “Peyton Manning nearly had a catastrophic injury and came back after surgery. Look at Brady and his knee. You look at the type of knee surgery someone like Joe Namath had. It’s totally different.”

It would stand to reason, of course, that the younger generation currently thriving—Mahomes, Goff, and Deshaun Watson, among others—will have similarly long careers, and all the age-related records falling now will look like jokes in 20 years. Joyner thinks the specialization of athletes will hurt younger generations, which isn’t a problem for multisport stars like Mahomes, of course. Joyner said one of the keys to aging well in sports is a “suite of motor skills you form as a kid through playing many different sports. There’s muscle memory that you can repurpose for when they get older. The older athletes typically have really good general athletic skills,” he said, referencing Brees’s amateur tennis career and Brady’s MLB draft selection.

Age, and how teams deal with it, is becoming one of the defining characteristics of the league. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement did not just limit practice time; it also limited rookie salaries, creating a massive gulf between the amount veterans and players in their first four years are paid. Because of this, two distinct methods of employing a quarterback have emerged: Pay over $20 million to your veteran or less than $8 million to your young player. On Sunday, two over-40 veterans will be going against two players 24 or under. It will be a fascinating test case to see which strategy wins out. It will be even more fascinating to see how many more times Brady and Brees reach this point, and whether, in 20 years, Goff and Mahomes will age in the same way. It is the age of the old quarterback, and it might last forever.