Brees, Brady, Age and the Inevitable

The much-hyped showdown of 40-something quarterbacks played out the way it probably should have: Two all-time greats battling each other and battling time. On Sunday, time got the best of them both.
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NEW ORLEANS — There’s no way that Drew Brees pictured this—certainly not this—as The End. The divisional playoff game at home, the site of so many of his greatest triumphs; the stands all but empty; the streets outside the Superdome silent save for the occasional junker coughing exhaust fumes while rolling by. The NFC championship game so close. The second-half lead. The dream alive.

Then, the fall. Another one. The three interceptions against Tampa Bay. The 38.1 QB rating. The third-straight playoff loss at home. The fourth-straight postseason heartbreaker. As Brees trudged off the field—perhaps straight into a broadcast booth—the lucky-turned-unlucky fans who assembled in the lower bowl could almost hear the universe playing Sad Trombone on an endless loop.

A Hall of Fame career ended on Sunday night, amid a global pandemic, with little pomp or ceremony, as yet another shot at an elusive second Super Bowl title was cruelly ripped away. That’s the same career in which Brees broke NFL passing records and helped a city overcome Hurricane Katrina and won XLIV and this season came back from 11 broken ribs. And on the day it ended, what had been set up as a celebration of age defiance had transformed into the oldest lesson of all.

Namely: Age, just like Aaron Donald, comes after everybody. Even for the immortals, for two of the greatest players in NFL history, for Brees and Tom Brady, two quarterbacks who defied time and science and any measure of reasonable expectations to become the oldest starting quarterback playoff duo in league history, their combined age a geriatric 85.

Brees and Brady handshake

I watched both all day Sunday. Every stretch, every warm-up throw, every handshake, every snap, every pass, every handoff, every spit, every complaint to the referees, every slow walk toward the sideline. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it’s because I’m 41 years old, and I took a nap on Sunday afternoon, having done no more than take a not-very-brisk 25-minute stroll through an empty French Quarter. Maybe it’s because anyone in their 40s can look at Brees and Brady and wonder how the hell something like that happens, how two quarterbacks who aren’t exactly fast, who were continually doubted, who run from huge defenders on every play, who take their share of sacks and suffer their share of injuries and yet have lasted longer than any signal callers in NFL history. What could their final meeting (again, not certain, but close) tell us about ourselves?

Not much, turns out. Not Sunday. Not when Brees and Brady took turns jogging onto the field and looked nothing like immortals—they actually looked … old. They didn’t quite resemble the image Brady posted on social media this week, the one that showed him with a bushy, gray beard, standing next to a balding Brees, like two grandfathers rather than two superstars. The two had combined for 585 regular-season starts, after all, an NFL first for playoff counterparts.

Their experience meant less than expected Sunday. Brady’s first play (handoff), first pass (complete, short left) and first drive (punt) all served as harbingers to the bumpy evening ahead. A few times they looked like the quarterbacks we’ve watched for 20 years: Brees, licking his fingers, chopping his steps, throwing with uncanny precision; Brady, smooth, in complete control, mastery on display. Mostly, though, they struggled. Brees passed for only 134 yards, as the Bucs took Michael Thomas away with more man coverage than expected, all but double-daring Brees to throw deep. Instead, Tampa picked him off three times and tight end Jared Cook fumbled away another drive. “Four turnovers,” running back Alvin Kamara said in summation. “It sucks.”

Even then, the Saints led 6-0 (first quarter), 13-10 (second) and 20-13 (third), as the New Orleans secondary stifled Brady’s targets; he took enough hits that eventually officials started helping him up from the ground. He rose gingerly, like anyone over 40 would. At one point, Brady stalked back to the Bucs bench after another punt, where he grabbed a team-issued iPad and gave that icy Brady glare. Overall, he managed a respectable stat line—18 completions, 199 passing yards, two touchdown throws that capitalized on the turnovers. But there was little that happened Sunday that led anyone to believe either of these teams will travel to Green Bay next week and topple the Packers for a Super Bowl berth.

That Brady is one game from another championship berth is remarkable, regardless of how he threw on Sunday. His 32nd postseason win gives him twice as many as any QB in league history, and next week will be the 14th conference title game of his 21-year career and ninth in 10 years. But Sunday was TB12 over DB9—and it was Time over quarterbacks who have long defied it. Brees had called their third match-up this season—the Saints won the first two—“inevitable.” How two old quarterbacks played on Sunday seemed to fall under that umbrella, too.

Already, Brady had become the oldest player to ever throw a playoff TD, in the Bucs’ 31-23 playoff opening win over the Washington Football Team last weekend. That set up the AARP Playoff Showdown against Brees. As the game approached, their shared longtime throwing coach Tom House resisted all comparisons. For years, he’d watched and read and heard about the imminent demises for two Hall of Fame signal callers, both of whom showed up every season and pointed their teams back toward the playoffs.

Eventually someone who predicted the end for either of them would be right. But this game? This treat? He likened it to the night he watched Nolan Ryan throw his seventh no-hitter from the Rangers dugout, where House served as the team’s pitching coach. “It’s similar,” he said. “You’re in it, and you’re watching it, and you’re trying to understand it. But it’s beyond what most people would ever truly understand.”

Instead, House encouraged a more reactive approach. “You can dissect and examine and x-ray and do deep dives on everything that made them what they are,” he said. “All we should do is just step back and look at something that’s never going to happen again.”

That went for both quarterbacks, Brees especially. The Purdue graduate had modified his style in recent seasons, becoming more clinical, more efficient, throwing shorter passes and fewer interceptions. He broke the NFL passing record, then watched Brady become the all-time passing touchdowns leader. And yet, Brees played well this season. Sometimes he didn’t look the same, especially when playing through injuries. But when he threw for 311 yards against the Vikings in the victory that clinched the NFC South, he passed 80,000 career yards. “Honestly, Drew has meant everything to me,” wideout Tre'Quan Smith said after catching two touchdowns on Sunday.

Brees meant everything to all of them. His team. The city. They kept saying that. They saw him lift the Saints to another division title, capture the No. 2 seed in the NFC, secure another home playoff game, everything aligning, yet again. Then, poof, gone. Linebacker Demario Davis spoke for a devastated locker room when he said he came to New Orleans to help Brees specifically win another Super Bowl, “because I felt like he deserved it; I wanted him to have some more championship trophies on the mantle.”

Age stopped that pursuit. Always does, eventually. The Saints entered this game healthier than at any point this season, playing some of their best football; they even took the field in front of a small crowd, limited Brady, took those leads, until they stood one halfway decent half from another NFC title game. They did not play a halfway decent half. Brees did not, in particular, his age all but blinking like a neon sign over his head.

Afterward, his picture beamed over videoconference. The father of four wore a black hoodie and a look of resignation. He might have been despondent, crushed, depressed, but none of those emotions came across his face. His expression was simple and unmistakable: disappointment.

The first question, of course, was whether he planned to retire. The interviewer even backed into the query, apologizing. Brees laughed and said he planned to think about it, same as last year, when he almost stepped away and did come back.

Was this season worth it? Yes, he said. “I would never regret it. Never. No complaints.”

Then, he started to get nostalgic, and he sounded like a bemused father looking back on past glory, even though, in this case, he only looked back a few months. “This season, probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to do in any other season in my career,” he said. He listed the ribs broken, the games missed, the pandemic, always looming. “And it was worth every moment,” he repeated. “Absolutely.”

Tom Brady meets with Drew Brees and family after playoff game

Soon after that, Brees walked onto the Superdome turf, where he met with Brady and took a long look around. The quarterbacks embraced, knowing what the moment meant. Brady threw a touchdown pass to one of Brees’s sons. This scene, the one that will last longer than two Hall of Fame careers, marked a touching moment on an unartful afternoon. Timeless.

House is right, by the way. This game won’t be placed into any football aesthetics museums, won’t live in the annals of the sport’s history, won’t end up with those NFL Films voiceovers that make every game feel like something bigger, something more. This game, as Kamara said, sucked. But it’s still Brady. And it’s still Brees. And it’s still a 43-year-old quarterback and a 42-year-old quarterback who just happen to both be legends. House posits—correctly—that it could be another “100 years” before we see something like that again.

Asked why, he begins to list reasons. Brady and Brees started their careers before NFL salaries came to resemble Silicon Valley ones. They made great money, sure, but won’t bank a billion dollars like Patrick Mahomes can. They didn’t scramble the way the younger quarterback stars do now, either—see: Jackson, Lamar; Allen, Josh; Watson, Deshaun—meaning they ultimately took fewer hits. Why, House asks, would any of those players want to do that for 20 seasons?

Maybe Brady’s season ends next week in Green Bay, where a spry 37-year-old named Aaron Rodgers just finished an MVP campaign. Maybe Brady plays until his stated goal of age 45. Maybe Brees, against odds and reason and playoff heartache, comes back for another year.

Time’s still gonna win, same as did on Sunday.

As Brees ran off the Superdome turf for what’s likely the final time, he blew kisses to his family and waved at the socially-distanced crowd. Shortly after, the Journey tune, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, played to an empty stadium. Brees walks into an uncertain future, Brady into another conference title game. And sure, two quarterbacks who never seemed to age looked older Sunday. But that’s what made their careers so remarkable in the first place. They knew that time would win, and they kept going and will continue to keep going, for however long it lasts.