A half-decade ago, when Drew Brees and Tom Brady told anyone who’d listen they wanted to play into their mid-40s, it was a wild, far-off hypothetical, that many filed away at the time as just one of those things athletes say.
But those guys were dead serious. And now the hypothetical has become reality.
Brees made the call this week to go forward for another year, his 20th in the league and 15th with the Saints, at age 41. Brady, meanwhile, has been consistent in saying that retirement wasn’t even part of the equation for him looking toward the 2020 season, before which he’ll turn 43. And that means, in the century pro football has been played, these two are among six quarterbacks to have reached 20 NFL seasons, joining George Blanda, Earl Morrall, Vinny Testaverde and Brett Favre.
They’re also the second and third, after Favre, to get there as entrenched starters, though Favre had bounced to the Jets and Vikings by then, whereas Brees and Brady have a chance to remain with their longtime teams. And if you look at what they were saying six or seven years ago, you’ll realize it’s not an accident, either.
And believe it or not, the lab for all this was the clubhouse of the late ’80s/early ’90s Texas Rangers. Tom House, Brady and Brees’s throwing coach, was the pitching coach for those teams. Those groups were generally nondescript—hovering around .500 over that time—but for one interesting phenomenon. Their older pitchers were really holding up.
“There were a bunch of them that kind of got it right. They hit the crease perfectly between old school and new school, to where it wasn’t just going out and throwing and building arm strength. It was actually training to pitch, recovering to pitch, metabolic management and mental/emotional management to pitch,” House said Wednesday. “In other words, we kind of debugged the process when I was with the Rangers, without know what we were doing.”
The elder statesmen on that staff, Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough, both pitched until they were 46, and the younger guys learned being around them. Kenny Rogers went until he was 43, Kevin Brown until he turned 40 and Darren Oliver got to 42. Jamie Moyer—or Crazy Jamie Moyer, as House calls him—made it to 49.
Through trial and error, House developed a system. As part of it, the Rangers would throw footballs during warmups, the reason being that House figured out that you can’t throw one wrong and make it spiral. Which made him realize that the principles to quarterbacking were similar to pitching. Which has made it so some of the answers he had for Ryan and Moyer and the rest of them could also work for Brees and Brady.
So here we are.
This is really the last quiet week for a while in the NFL—the combine starts next week, and we’ll be off-and-running from there—but there’s still plenty for us to touch on in this week’s GamePlan. So here we go…
• We’ll give you a ranking of prospects to get you ready for Indy
• We’re going to cover the trouble with the expanded playoffs
• What Greg Robinson’s run-in tells us about the Browns
But we’re starting with Brees and Brady, and how their throwing coach sees them as they get deeper into their 40s.
Truth is, House’s foray into quarterback training—he and his partner Adam Dedeaux work with more than half the NFL’s starters at 3DQB in Orange County—happened by accident. His old neighbor in San Diego was former Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and Cameron asked House if he’d work with Brees. Likewise, Brady came via reference. His backup, Matt Cassel, played baseball at USC, where House was the pitching coach.
Brees’s work with House ramped up after he hurt his shoulder in 2005. Brady’s interest was piqued when Cassel brought him to House’s facility, and he ran into Brees and Alex Smith. By the time House got them, his program was well-developed, and both now have been working with him for a long, long time, so he knows both exceedingly well. As such, he’s not surprised they’ve made it here, because he saw it happen in baseball 30 years ago.
“It’s 100 percent applicable,” House said. “The only difference, quarterbacking is, I think, a little bit more dangerous to the overall body, because they’re not just on a rubber throwing a ball to home plate. They’re trying to throw it as efficiently as a pitcher does, but they’re running for their lives all the time.”
Brady and Brees have coaches for those pieces of the equation (strength and conditioning, nutrition, etc.) too—each has surrounded himself with a team of experts, of which House is a part. What House can explain is where they’re at physically, as throwers, based on what his study of each told him from 2019.
“They’re both still at the top of their games,” House said. “With our metrics, and again I can’t share them 100 percent, I think Brady threw the ball better last year than he has the last three or four years. Now, the outcomes weren’t satisfactory, even to Tom. But by our metrics, he threw the ball as well last year as he has any time in his career. And except for the injury time and the coming back, and the little rust that was involved after the injury with Brees, he threw the ball as well as we’ve seen.
“I think, and I’m not sure, that one game he put up was the best quarterbacked game in the history of football? And remember, it’s not just the quarterback by himself, there’s a supporting cast, defense, special teams, there has to be receivers to throw to, there has to be an offensive line. There’s a lot more involved than just the statistics in a win or a loss. That’s why our health and performance metrics, looking at muscle, nerve, skill acquisition and skill retention, their numbers are still up there in the elite range.”
Over a good, long conversation on Tuesday, House and I covered a bunch of other parts of where Brees and Brady are going into 2020. Let’s dive into that …
Both guys are different. House knows, just as guys like Alex Guerrero around Brady and Todd Durkin around Brees know, that there is a part of what the quarterbacks have that’s unteachable. Which gives every one of their coaches, inside football and out, a pretty good starting point.
“It’s their commitment to excellence,” House said. “They have this overwhelming need to get better at something every day. Their persistence in the face of everything that says they shouldn’t is what separates them. I saw it in Nolan Ryan. It’s out there. And I’m sure it exists, I don’t have the same exposure to other sports, but the elder statesmen that continue to be competitive, they love the game, but they commit to being the best they can be every day, and to figuring out ways they can improve themselves.”
Another key is how open they’ve been to change. House asked me whether I was familiar with confirmation bias. I said that of course I was. He then said one of the things that most impressed him with Brady and Brees was their ability to fight that off.
“A lot of these guys are so good that eventually they only listen to things that only confirm what they know and do,” said House. “The unique thing about the Drew Breeses and the Tom Bradys and the Nolan Ryans and even Crazy Jamie Moyer, who was a less talented individual but had the same commitment to excellence, is they’re not stuck in that box. If it makes sense to them, they’ll give it a shot. The greatest right all these athletes have is the right to change, the hardest thing to do is change.
“For them to actually embrace change, there has to be a compelling reason.”
The number’s still 45. That Brady and Brees use that number—and other quarterbacks have too—isn’t a mistake. Even now, House says, comparing older clients with younger ones, Brady and Brees continuing “requires a different level than what a Dak Prescott or a Jacoby Brissett are doing … [because] as they get older, they’re not quite as crisp as they were physically and neurologically when they were 25.”
Along those lines, there is an expiration date for everyone.
“I captured data on movement, on wireless EMG, without knowing what I was capturing it for, and what I saw was the diminishing returns curve for pretty much everyone. It starts, no matter what you do, at age 45,” House said. “That seems to be whatever you’d call it, the crest of the wave. From there on out, no matter what you do, you’re going to get less than.”
House’s role. Both Brees and Brady entered the offseason with massive decisions to make. Brees has made his, Brady’s is coming. And while House acknowledges that those are “extremely hard,” he thinks it best if he involves himself only if asked.
“Kind of think of me as the goofy uncle,” he said. “I don’t care about politics, I don’t care about contracts, my relationship with them is obviously, first, on the professional side, to help them be the best they can be, and on the personal side, just to be a nonjudgmental friend, be a support system for them.”
To that end, House recalls the things that then Rangers GM Tom Grieve and manager Bobby Valentine used to do to accommodate Ryan, and other older players, too. They made players’ kids batboys, they made the weight-room family friendly, they allowed for sons and daughters to fly with the team and stay with their dads on the road.
House’s son, in fact, was his roommate on the road for three summers as a teenager.
Seeing that gave House insight into what Brady and Brees are going through, now having to balance family life with professional realities, and aging to where some teammates are part of a different generation all together—in fact, House has put Brady and Brees in touch with Ryan to try and give them a first-hand resource to work with. It’s also fair to say the information they’re getting as a result probably plays into the big decisions these quarterbacks have to make.
“One of the reasons why Nolan played as long as he did, is the organization made the clubhouse, the weight room, the field, everything except game-time on-the-field stuff, a family affair,” House said. “And I think that’s one of the hardest things that Tom and Drew are going through right now, they’ve got kids that are growing up, they’re both family men, it’s family, football, faith and affiliation, and they’re trying to find that balance.
“There’s a different pull on a 43-year-old with three kids than there is on a 25-year-old that’s just worried about music he’s listening to.”
So it has been that Brees has stayed consistent, at least in my talks with him, the last few years, in saying he thinks he can keep going, but isn’t sure there won’t come a time when he simply wants to walk away. And so it will probably play into the decision Brady makes next month on where he wants to play his 21st NFL season.
Next year, to be sure, there’ll be more big decisions to make.
But for now? That both of them are still here is pretty amazing.
I gave you guys the lowdown last week: We’ll keep the power rankings in the column, and have random rankings each week. Last week, we did the 2020 draft class’s top quarterbacks. This week, we’ll give you the top five non-quarterbacks.
1) Chase Young, DE, Ohio State, junior: Duh.
2) Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn, senior: I had a couple of scouts tell me in the fall that Young and Brown were on their own tier in this year’s class. And I had my old NFL Network colleague Daniel Jeremiah on the podcast this week, and when I asked if there’s separation between Young and the next prospect, he immediately raised Brown’s name, and said he’s a better prospect than Quinnen Williams was last year.
3) Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State, junior: Okudah progressively improved over his three collegiate seasons. And because of that, and his size-speed ratio, it’s fair to wonder if he’s got a lot more room to grow—which is a scary thought, given he was widely seen as the best corner in the country this year.
4) Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson, redshirt junior: Simmons is a fun prospect in the way Tremaine Edmunds was fun two years ago and Josh Allen was fun last year—each profiles as a freak athletically, and the biggest question becomes how you plan to use them. Simmons would be great in a Patriots-style defense, and two teams running those have top five picks.
5) Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina, senior: I could’ve put Georgia’s Andrew Thomas or Alabama’s Jedrick Wills here, but the tackle group is muddled, with each guy having considerable upside and a big question mark or two. So I’m going with the safe, versatile defensive lineman here, a four-year player in Columbia, to round out the top five.
THE BIG QUESTION
What will the fallout of 13th and 14th playoff teams be?
The idea of expanded playoffs have been a part of CBA talks from the start, and it’s not hard to understand why: It’s another example of owners creating inventory, creating a new element for the schedule basically out of thin air. In this case, it isn’t as damaging for players (a low number would be affected every year by it), so it’s been assumed for months that one would get through.
But should the players let it? An interesting point was raised to me by players last night. In an environment intense and probably more high-risk than the regular season, the great majority of players get less than half what they would in a normal game check to play in a wild-card playoff game. So the league will make hundreds of millions on it, and the players who make it there don’t feel the benefit the NFL will for putting the games on.
In essence, the owners generate new revenue without conceding anything financial to the players, other than the normal percentage of what they’d get.
In the end, I think this one will be like the franchise tag, which is to say it affects too few players and is too important to the owners not to get through. But the players would be smart here to approach it like the owners would—pull it back and use it as a chip. And if you want an example, look at marijuana testing. That wasn’t a big deal for owners, but they knew it was for the players, and so they held it forever to get more for giving it back.
That’s how negotiations work. And as the owners try to throw this one in the “inventory” pile, with Thursday Night Football, the return to L.A., London and a 17-game season, it certainly seems like there’d be a way here for the players to play the owners’ game.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
An interesting element of the Greg Robinson situation. I had my fun, and I know I wasn’t alone, with his Amateur Pablo arrest this week. But to those who’ve been around him, it’s not exactly a shocker that Robinson has found himself in trouble. Accountability’s been a problem forever for the former second pick. Even last year, as Cleveland’s starting left tackle, he was late so often that it became a running joke in the facility.
What’s not as funny? This is how the Browns have built their team. They’re different reasons, obviously, but there was a reason why the wildly talented Robinson was available, just like there was a reason why Kareem Hunt was available, and why Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were available. And so the way last year went, in retrospect, probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us on the outside.
You can take risks building a team. Take too many, and they become who you are.
It also probably shouldn’t be a shocker that Baker Mayfield went the way he did in Year 2, and that’s not to absolve him of any blame—he’s accountable, too. Thing is, most fast-developing young quarterbacks are surrounded with strong vets, who help bring the best out of them. What Mayfield had around him brought out, well, something far less than that.
Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what the new Browns regime, led by Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski, do to amend all this.
THE FINAL WORD
Heed what ex-Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich says.
“It’s going to be difficult to try and bring everybody back. I would think if Tom comes back, one of those other players comes back,” Ninkovich said, to the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian. “But if Tom doesn’t come back, I don’t know if those guys are going to want to stick around. Because what’s the outlook for the team? Is it a rebuilding phase? What happens moving forward? That would be a hard sell.”
Ninkovich’s point is that the Patriots have long benefited in getting discounts from ring-chasers. If Brady’s not there? Harder, as Ninkovich says, to sell the idea.
And that’s before you even get to the fact that some in other parts of the organization may look to get out ahead of the post-Brady-Belichick era. We’ve got an interesting few weeks ahead for the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
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