With a combined age of 85 years and 30 days, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will be the oldest pair of starting quarterbacks in N.F.L. history when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the New Orleans Saints in Sunday night’s marquee matchup. The previous record of 84 years and 243 days was set by Brady and Brees when the Saints and Buccaneers squared off in the regular season opener. The pair will set another record in the likely event that they meet in the playoffs.
Brady (43) and Brees (41), along with Ben Roethlisberger (38) of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philip Rivers (38) of the Indianapolis Colts comprise the N.F.L.’s quarterboomers, a generation of still-spry living legends who can teach the league’s whippersnappers a thing or two, at least so long as they are perched behind fortresslike offensive lines and supported by star-studded rosters.
These 40-ish quarterbacks should not be mistaken for creaky has-beens who are merely coasting on their reputations. The Buccaneers, Colts, Saints and Steelers have a combined 23-6 record through Week 8. Brady is tied for third in the N.F.L. with 20 touchdown passes, while Roethlisberger is tied for seventh with 15. Brees and Brady rank seventh and ninth, respectively, in the league in efficiency rating. Brady and the others are keeping their teams near the front of the playoff chase while outperforming many would-be challengers 10 to 20 years younger.
That’s not to say that the veterans never show signs of age. Roethlisberger, who used to shrug off would-be tacklers and launch downfield missiles, now more often flings short passes to a coterie of young playmakers. Rivers throws like an old knuckleballer with petroleum jelly on his fingers, his passes mysteriously wobbling and weaving their way through defenders to their targets. Brees shares snaps with the fleet-footed Taysom Hill to compensate for his ever-decreasing mobility.
Even Brady looks at times like a classic rock legend supported on his farewell tour by a 60-piece orchestra and a choir that swells whenever he cannot reach a high note. And in case that’s not enough, scheduled to join the band this week is the former Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had been suspended from the league after pleading no contest to burglary and battery charges related to a dispute in January and for threatening a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct.
The quarterboomers appeared to be on their last legs at the end of the 2019 season. Roethlisberger missed most of the year with an elbow injury. Teddy Bridgewater was performing Brees’s trickier stunts. Rivers threw 20 interceptions in his final season with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Giants mercifully benched Eli Manning, who at 38 could no longer keep up with his peers. Brady looked washed up as the New England Patriots’ roster crumbled around him.
It finally appeared to be time for all of them to cede the spotlight to new superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, or to any of a dozen lesser candidates who still cannot quite string together three games in which they are healthy and productive.
But a healthy Roethlisberger returned to a rebuilt Steelers roster. Rivers has been rejuvenated by the sturdy Colts offensive line and a reunion with the game-planning guru Frank Reich, who coached Rivers in some of his best recent seasons. And Brady has thrived since a divorce with the Patriots that has left Bill Belichick eating microwave dinners over the sink and grousing to anyone with a sympathetic ear.
Age brings a measure of wisdom, which is one reason quarterbacks old enough to own Dave Matthews Band boxed CD sets are so effective. There is no coverage scheme or blitz package that Brady and the others cannot instantly diagnose and counterattack after 17 to 21 N.F.L. seasons. The peculiarities of 2020 may even have increased their advantage: The veterans are recalling tactics from memory that their opponents learned this summer in Zoom meetings.
There’s more to the quarterboomers’ success than just residual talent and life experience, however. The Buccaneers, Colts, Saints, and Steelers are going “all in” to win a Super Bowl in their quarterbacks’ golden years by adding weapons, maxing out the salary cap and planning almost exclusively for the short-term future. Younger quarterbacks may get stuck behind jury-rigged offensive lines or with middling receiver corps as their teams economize and strategize for long-term success, but Brady and the others are granted every available immediate advantage.
A reckoning will come for their teams once Brady and the others fade or retire. The Saints are almost $93 million over the projected 2021 salary cap, per OverTheCap.com; the team may have to be relegated to a seven-on-seven league to make ends meet. The Colts and Steelers have no quarterbacks-of-the-future in the wings, and neither team will be in position next year to draft one. The Buccaneers, who are paying Brady a guaranteed $25 million this season, are making the sort of Faustian bargain that guarantees dire consequences. Any of these teams could soon look like the ruins of the Patriots empire, and only one of them (at most) can win the Super Bowl that will make it worthwhile.
That mix of sustained excellence, presumptive entitlement and win-at-any-cost ambition makes it possible to both admire and resent the quarterboomers. In many ways, they are re-enacting a well-trod generational conflict: Old-timers, still vital but also benefiting from past accomplishments, are lording their continued success over youngsters too shackled to bad coaches or endangered by leaky offensive lines to pick themselves up by their bootstraps just yet.
That said, anyone who suffered through Carson Wentz versus Ben DiNucci in last Sunday night’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys knows that we should cherish matchups like Brady vs. Brees while we can.