From the Patriots sideline on Dec. 26, 2005, as time was running out in the final “Monday Night Football” game on ABC, Tom Brady bore witness to a moment that was both historic and foreshadowing.
In the final minutes of the late-season matchup between the Patriots and Jets, Vinny Testaverde jogged onto the field for New York. Broadcaster Al Michaels couldn’t help but find amusement in the moment.
“It’s a great night for AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons,” Michaels quipped as the 42-year-old entered the contest.
Testaverde’s entry was historic thanks to the identity of his opponent. Doug Flutie, New England’s 43-year-old backup quarterback, was in the game in place of Brady for the final drives of a 31-21 Patriots victory.
Roughly two decades removed from the Heisman Trophy performances that brought both to national prominence in the 1980s, Flutie and Testaverde became the first pair of 40-somethings to throw passes in the same NFL game. That distinction remained in place until this year, until Brady and Drew Brees created their own kind of history.
Flutie and Testaverde were backups in that 2005 contest. Brady and Brees, by contrast, will start against each other for the third time this season Sunday when the Buccaneers take on the Saints in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Brady, 43, and Brees, who turns 42 this week, will become the first pair of quadragenarians to start against each other in a playoff game.
Before 2018, there had been just four instances of a quarterback in his 40s attempting at least 10 passes in a playoff game. Now, Brady and Brees have made such appearances routine, with Brady preparing for his ninth playoff game since turning 40 and Brees readying for his fourth.
That the two of them are sharing a stage is little short of extraordinary. Yet it isn’t altogether shocking.
Three years ago, Tom House — the biomechanics sage who worked with Nolan Ryan in the latter stages of his baseball career and now works with numerous quarterbacks, including Brady and Brees — took stock of his group.
“What you’re seeing with Brady and Brees we saw in Nolan and Randy Johnson,” House said in 2018. “They actually had big league tools, applied sports science to it, and became durable longer and competed beyond what the bell curve said they should.
“Tom Brady and Drew Brees in football are the closest thing to Nolan Ryan in baseball that I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think there’s a higher compliment. That’s on the field, off the field, the commitment to what it takes, and the passion for their sport.”
That commitment has remained, in a way that has allowed Brees and Brady to defy nearly all precedent in extending their careers into their 40s. Before them, there had been just seven instances of 40-year-old quarterbacks attempting 200 passes in a season; Brady and Brees have now combined to produce six.
Yet the two have done more than just line up under center. They’ve remained in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, performing at levels that had never been attained by players at their age and position.
Before 2018, there had been only one instance of a 40-year-old posting a passer rating of at least 88.0 (Brett Favre at age 40 in 2009, when he had a 107.2 rating). Brees has had ratings over 100 in both of his seasons in his 40s, including a career-best 116.3 in 2019, while Brady has posted ratings of 102.8, 97.7, 88.0, and 102.2 since turning 40.
Brady’s 97.6 passer rating in his 40s is slightly better than the 97.2 mark he’d posted in his 20s and 30s.
Of course, Brady and Brees are trail blazers in and a reflection of a changing era of quarterback longevity. Amazingly, five of the starting quarterbacks in this year’s 14-team playoff field — Brady (43), Brees (turning 42), Philip Rivers (39), Ben Roethlisberger (38), and Aaron Rodgers (37) — were 37 or older, marking the first time in NFL history a single postseason had more than three.
With Brady, Brees, and Rodgers still alive, this year should see at least eight instances of quarterbacks 37 or older attempting at least 10 passes in a playoff game. The current record is seven, following both the 2018 season (Brady 3, Brees 2, Rivers, 2) and the 1998 season (John Elway 3, Dan Marino 2, Steve Young, 2).
It now has become standard to see quarterbacks over the age of 36 in the playoffs. This is the eighth straight year in which at least one team has been led by a quarterback in that demographic. In the 55 years of the Super Bowl Era, there are 83 instances of quarterbacks 37 or over attempting 10 passes in a game; there were 49 in the first 47 years, 34 in the last eight.
In other words, things have come a long way from where they were just over 15 years ago, when a young Brady must have marveled at the sight of a 43-year-old and 42-year-old taking snaps in the same NFL game.
Now, Brady and Brees will repeat the feat — with quite a bit more at stake.