METAIRIE, La. - Shortly before Drew Brees turned 30, he had a talk with retired San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young that made him feel a bit better about entering the fourth decade of his life.
“He said, ‘Man, your prime as a QB is 30 to 35,’ ” Brees recalled. “Now I would say Kurt Warner and Brett Favre are breaking that mold by going toward 40 and playing at such a high level. But that makes you feel good, because it shows that your skills can still be very high at that age.”
Brees turned 31 on Friday (the same day his only child, son Baylen, turned 1) and is the youngest of four quarterbacks in the over-30 club whose teams are still playing.
At 40, Favre is the oldest, followed by Warner, 38, and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, 33. Should Favre’s Minnesota Vikings beat Dallas and Warner’s Arizona Cardinals beat New Orleans this weekend, the average QB age in the NFC championship game will be 39 — a veritable Graybeard Bowl.
“It’s not like 30 is a very old player; a lot of guys are just getting into it,” said Warner, who did not play in an NFL game until he was 27. “But I definitely think the experience helps, especially at this time of year, and I think it takes time to build things. Very seldom do you have a quarterback that comes in, in their first year, and the team around them’s good.”
Of course, that does happen. Many of the best quarterbacks in the game made their mark earlier in their careers. Tom Brady was 24, in his first season as a starter because of an injury to Drew Bledsoe, when he won his first of three Super Bowls in a four-year period.
The two youngest quarterbacks still playing this season are New York Jets rookie Mark Sanchez, 23, and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, 24. They play on teams built in large part around defense and the running game, and they threw for the fewest yards and touchdowns of any of the eight quarterbacks suiting up this weekend.
On Sunday, Favre will try to outgun a quarterback 11 years his junior in 29-year-old Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. San Diego’s Philip Rivers, 28, will be the senior signal caller in his game against Sachez and the Jets.
Favre hopes his experience will give him an edge, but to him, there are a number of factors, sometimes beyond a quarterbacks’ control, that allow them excel into their late 30s and, in his case, beyond.
“I just think that this year I’m playing on a very good football team,” Favre said. “Warner is playing on a very good football team, Brees. … Now, it helps to play well at our position, but you’ve got to have a good cast around you. The stars have to kind of be aligned, too, and it seems like this year that’s the case.”
Brees, who had a serious throwing-shoulder injury two weeks before turning 27, joined the Saints shortly after that as a free agent and with uncertain career prospects. He has thrown for more than 4,300 yards each season in the four years since.
Brees’ yardage total fell this season from last, when he became only the second player to throw for more than 5,000 yards (5,069). He threw 121 fewer passes, and his yardage total dipped to 4,388.
Still, he would argue that the first season of his 30s was his best yet.
He threw for 34 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. His 70.6 completion percentage set an NFL record, and his 109.6 quarterback rating led the NFL and set a franchise record.
In the process, he led the Saints to a franchise-record 13 wins and the first No. 1 playoff seeding in franchise history. He finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting to Manning, who’s more than two years his senior.
Among positions in football, quarterback is one that lends itself to longevity because teams are usually trying to limit the amount of contact their quarterbacks endure, whereas players at other positions, such as running backs, routinely engage opponents head-on. Rule changes in recent years also have been designed to limit hits on quarterbacks. Meanwhile, advancements in medicine are helping athletes heal more fully when they do get hurt.
Brees also noted that the quarterback position puts a premium on preparation and experience. It takes time to learn how to read defenses, to recognize blitzes and coverages and to understand when it’s worth making riskier throws into tight coverage, and when it’s not.
“Your skills slowly diminish as you get older, right? You’re not as athletic, whatever, but your knowledge and experience level goes up,” Brees said. “There’s that window where they cross, and you consider that your prime. … I hope, barring injury, knock on wood, I want to play this game as long as I can.”
If his luck with health turns out to be anything like Favre’s, this postseason could be one of many more in which Brees plays between now and 2019.