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Will Tom Brady or Drew Brees Finish As the NFL’s All-Time Passing Touchdown King?

Brady has 561 career touchdown passes. Brees has 560. Before their head-to-head matchup this Sunday, let’s break down which ageless quarterback is set to reign supreme in the record books.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Drew Brees broke the NFL’s all-time passing yardage record on Monday Night Football in 2018, he set off a massive in-game celebration. Officials stopped the action, Brees’s family joined him on the field, and a referee presented him with a plaque commemorating the accomplishment. (Well, it wasn’t really a plaque—more like a laminated sheet of paper. I wonder if Brees keeps it with his Super Bowl MVP trophy.) But when Tom Brady threw his record-setting 561st career touchdown pass on this week’s Monday Night Football game against the Giants, there was almost no fanfare. That’s not because the record isn’t important; it’s because Brady may not have the record for long. Brees had just set the career passing touchdowns record on Sunday, by throwing for two against the Bears. Before that, Brady had set the record six days prior, passing for four touchdowns against the Raiders in Week 7 while Brees passed for two against the Panthers. It would be a bit much if officials stopped the game and handed out a laminated certificate every time Brees or Brady overtook the other on the statistical leaderboard.

All-time career records like most passing touchdowns tend to stand for decades, only to be broken when an aging star finally catches a legend’s mark. Wilt Chamberlain set the NBA’s all-time scoring record in 1966 and held it until 1984, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar passed him. Abdul-Jabbar holds the record to this day; LeBron James has a chance to catch him in the next three or four years. Babe Ruth became baseball’s all-time home run king in 1921 and died before Hank Aaron passed him in 1974. Aaron then held the record for 33 years until Barry Bonds moved into first place in 2007. Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith topped the NFL’s all-time receiving and rushing touchdown leaderboards in 1992 and 1998, respectively; since no active players are anywhere near either of those marks, Rice and Smith will hold their records for at least another decade—and probably much longer.

The NFL’s career passing touchdown list has been more fluid, though, as passing games around the league have continually grown in importance. Fran Tarkenton (342) held the record from 1975 until 1995, when he was passed by Dan Marino (420). Marino had 12 years on top before he was passed by Brett Favre (508) in 2007. Favre had only seven years with the record before Peyton Manning (539) set the new mark in 2014. Manning held the record for only five years until Brees passed him last year (on Monday Night Football, of course). Now Brady (561) has a one-touchdown edge over Brees (560).

Still, changes should be expected to happen about once a decade—not every week. Fox Sports has apparently decided that every lead change should be treated as “BREAKING NEWS,” even though Brady and Brees will likely move between the no. 1 and no. 2 spots at least a few more times before season’s end. ESPN made this helpful seesaw animation.

It’s exceedingly rare for two athletes to simultaneously chase one of their sport’s most meaningful career records. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are currently tied for the most men’s tennis Grand Slam singles titles, but Nadal has never been ahead of Federer on that list. The best comparison for a series of back-and-forth changes at the top of an all-time statistical leaderboard comes from baseball. In 1983, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton both passed Walter Johnson’s 55-year-old MLB mark for career strikeouts. The two then traded the lead 19 times during the 1983 and 1984 seasons, with one player surging ahead on the day of their start and the other taking the lead back days later. But eventually Ryan pulled away: Carlton is three years older than Ryan, and was cut and traded a few times in his final seasons before eventually going unsigned in 1989. Meanwhile, Ryan kept pitching until 1993. Ryan finished with 5,714 strikeouts; Carlton finished with just 4,136. Given that no active pitcher is within 2,500 strikeouts of Ryan, it’s conceivable that he could hold on to that record forever.

On Sunday, the NFL’s all-time passing touchdown record will again be up for grabs when Brees’s Saints visit Brady’s Buccaneers. Records clearly mean a lot to both players, and I can picture both quarterbacks audibling out of rushing plays near the goal line to temporarily seize the historical lead. But who will be the all-time passing touchdown king when all is said and done? Let’s do a tale of the tape.

Age

Brees (born January 15, 1979) is 17 months younger than Brady (born August 3, 1977). That means only Brady was able to legally pound Zimas while listening to “Smooth” by Carlos Santana at Y2K parties. (I was 9 in 2000, so I don’t actually know what adults were drinking then. But there were a ton of ads for Zima on TV.) It also means that, biologically speaking, Brees should have more left in the tank—although Brady has made it his life’s mission to disprove everything that we know about biology.

Advantage: Brees

Production Rate

If this were a situation in which one quarterback had racked up his passing touchdowns over 10 seasons while the other had accumulated his over 20, it would be easy to predict who would finish with the all-time record. But the two have had eerily similar careers from a statistical standpoint. Since 2012, Brady and Brees have finished each season separated by fewer than 10 career passing touchdowns. Brady has thrown for a touchdown on 5.45 percent of his career passes; Brees has thrown for a touchdown on 5.37 percent of his, placing the two at 24th and 27th, respectively, on the career touchdown percentage list. Brees averages 1.98 touchdowns per game; Brady averages 1.92.

Advantage: Neither

Team Situation

Brady has benefitted massively from changing teams this offseason. On Sunday, the Patriots played a game without any active receivers who were picked in the NFL draft. (Like, in any round.) Meanwhile, the Buccaneers entered this season with one of the best receiving corps in the league—and added to it. They already had two wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who had 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons in 2019. Then they brought in Brady’s former Patriots faves, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wideout Antonio Brown. The team’s October signing of Brown—who was cut by New England in 2019 because of an account of sexual assault and who was suspended by the league for eight games in 2020 because of assault and battery charges stemming from a separate incident in which Brown attacked a truck driver—suggests that Tampa Bay will not even let morality get in the way of giving Brady the playmakers he wants.

Meanwhile, the Saints’ fifth-biggest contract on the books for 2021 is … that of backup quarterback Taysom Hill. Sure, Hill is a multi-positional player who is more likely to line up at receiver than to replace Brees full time under center. But the Saints also brought in Jameis Winston as a traditional backup quarterback this offseason after Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Panthers. New Orleans has contingency plans in case Brees can’t play at a high level for much longer. Tampa Bay’s backup is Blaine Gabbert. The Bucs are Brady or bust.

The Saints’ salary cap situation is a disaster. They’re $101 million over the cap entering next year, which isn’t quite as scary as it sounds. Still, it’s not good. New Orleans has financially committed to keeping superstar receiver Michael Thomas and do-it-all running back Alvin Kamara around long term, but lacks the ability to add complementary parts. And outside of Thomas and Kamara, the Saints’ receiving situation is underwhelming. The team’s third-best option is probably 33-year-old Emmanuel Sanders, several years removed from his prime with the Peyton Manning–era Broncos. Its top tight end is 33-year-old Jared Cook. New Orleans has once again had to bank on significant contributions from undrafted receivers like Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway. With such little cap space available, Brees is more or less stuck with Thomas, Kamara, aging sub-stars, and unwanted fill-ins to help out in his twilight years.

Advantage: Brady

Overall Washedness

At 43, Brady is somehow still producing like he’s in his prime. Before this season, every age-43-or-older quarterback in NFL history had combined to throw 21 touchdown passes. Brady has 20 touchdown passes in eight 2020 games alone. He’s on pace to finish with 40 touchdown passes this season—in 2010 and 2015, Brady led the league with 36.

Brady’s 6.5 percent touchdown rate would represent the third-best mark of his career. According to Pro Football Focus, he has upped his percentage of throws to targets more than 20 yards downfield from a career average of 11.6 percent to 14.0 percent this year. (He has three touchdowns and no interceptions on those throws.) Brady looks impossibly good for his age.

Brees, on the other hand, has started to play ultra-conservatively. Only 4.3 percent of his passes this season have gone to targets more than 20 yards downfield, dead last among qualified quarterbacks. While Brees was never one to demolish defenses with the deep ball, this figure is a notable decline from what Brees has posted in years past. And while Brees still leads the league in completion percentage (73.1 percent) and ranks among the top five in interception rate (1.2 percent), both could be a byproduct of Brees limiting himself to low-degree-of-difficulty throws.

As Thomas has missed much of this season with a nagging ankle sprain, New Orleans has built its aerial success on the brilliance of Kamara. He’s second in the NFL in receptions (55)—and his average depth of target is just 0.8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Brees is feeding Kamara and getting decent results, but it’s unclear whether that’s because Kamara is preposterously good or because Brees is using him as a crutch. The Ringer’s art team created this GIF for a reason.

Brees entered 2020 with a six-touchdown-pass lead on Brady. Through just eight weeks, Brady has erased it and overtaken Brees for the all-time lead. Brady still looks like Tom Brady, while Brees’s late-career production may be dependent on feeding his exceptionally talented running back.

Advantage: Brady

Sheer Desire to Keep Playing

This is what matters most. Brees and Brady are both continuing to put up passing touchdowns at decent rates. But if one retires while the other tries to keep playing until his arm falls off, the guy with the partially attached arm will end up with the all-time lead.

Brady has displayed a fanatical devotion to proving the haters, human nature, and strawberries wrong by playing for as long as possible. He’s openly stated his desire to play until age 45—although he recently changed his target retirement age to 46 or 47. He has billed himself as an anti-aging guru, selling impossibly expensive books and some of the soggiest, most upsetting pre-packaged meals you’ve ever seen. I long thought that Brady would simply ride off into the sunset with New England, amicably retiring after the greatest run in NFL history. But he seems genuinely interested in charting a new career arc with Tampa Bay.

Brees is clearly record-conscious, but I don’t think he’ll go all-out in pursuit of the career passing touchdowns mark to the extent that he’ll be able to keep up with Brady. Brees could retire with records that Brady can’t touch: He has the NFL’s highest career completion percentage (67.7 percent), the most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (54), and the most 5,000-yard passing seasons (five). But the touchdown pass record—and even Brees’s passing yardage record, a category in which he leads by about 2,500 yards—could be Brady’s if Brady manages to play for a year or two longer than Brees.

These coming weeks in which two legends compete to top the all-time passing touchdown leaderboard will be fun, but I don’t think the race will stay competitive in the long run. There are legitimate concerns over Brees’s arm; meanwhile, Brady is as prolific and effective as ever. Like your great uncle who moved to the Villages and began raging at 50-and-older DJ sets with his fourth wife, Brady is attacking his new Floridian life with a gusto and vivaciousness that shouldn’t be possible at his age. At this point, I’m not sure that he’ll ever retire.

Advantage: Brady