The matchup feels like more than a humongous game with novelty attached, however. It also could prove to be the capstone moment of a fading era in a sports. As athletes evolve, the desire to play for as long as possible is diminishing. Some fall victim to overtraining. Some possess athleticism that seems too freakish for their bodies to handle. Others make too much money too quickly to remain motivated. At quarterback, the mobility and willingness to take more hits make it less likely that the elite young stars will last deep into their 30s. The emerging generation will advance their sports, but they will shatter norms and create new standards.
Cherish the graying greats and marvel at their longevity for as long as you can. Many expect Brees to retire from the New Orleans Saints at season’s end. Brady is 18 months older, but after throwing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns during his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he figures to keep playing.
But the end is chasing him, just as it is going after LeBron James and Alex Ovechkin and Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Those are just a few of a slew of unforgettable legends who came to prominence at least 15 years ago and continue to amaze us. Their generation has trickled slowly into retirement; the remainder will step away within the next five years.
It’s an interesting time of evanesce — an inspiring time, a nostalgic time, a sad time — and the pandemic has made these possible final bursts of excellence even more bittersweet.
If not for the coronavirus, more than 70,000 fans would be in the Superdome for this preretirement showdown. But only 3,500 will be allowed to attend. Brees could play his last game in New Orleans — where his pinpoint throws usually summon ear-tingling delirium — in relative isolation. Whatever happens, the reaction will be more hum than roar. Even though the sports world has been muted like this for more than six months, the eerie experience hasn’t gotten any more tolerable.
Still, Brady and Brees persist. Besides winning and accumulating monstrous stats, that’s what they do best. They have combined to throw for 159,562 yards and 1,152 touchdowns in their careers. They’re the only quarterbacks who have surpassed 72,000 yards and 540 touchdowns. Brady has six championships and a .769 winning percentage over 21 seasons. Brees has one Super Bowl triumph and a .601 winning percentage in 20 seasons.
But they’re not here, on the other side of 40, simply because they’re too gifted to fail. We often miss a key portion of the aging superstar’s greatness by refusing to acknowledge that, even as he evades Father Time, there is a price to pay. There are struggles. Their weary bodies challenge them to change.
The takeaway shouldn’t be whitewashed marveling over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing until 42. How he did it without falling off a statistical cliff until the very end matters, too. He mastered the sky hook and extended its range. He relinquished top-dog status to Magic Johnson and embraced being a complementary star. The game is going to win because the body can only take so much pounding, but for the best, that’s when the mind compensates.
At 36, James is a better all-around basketball player than he was at 26. He doesn’t jump over people all the time anymore. He has developed a functional three-point shot and learned to use his massive frame. He has embraced operating more as a true point guard. Those are his versions of the Michael Jordan fadeaway or the deft placement — not just the power — of Williams’s serve or Brees’s transformation into a methodical quarterback who is more selective about when to be aggressive throwing downfield.
For the past four seasons, Brees has modified his approach: more game management, less gunslinging, fewer interceptions. Brees once had 12 straight seasons in which he threw at least 11 picks. But since 2017, he has been in the single digits every year. His passer rating during that time is 110.3. He doesn’t carry the offense anymore, but he keeps the playmakers happy. In the red zone, he and Coach Sean Payton still do special things.
The struggles of aging are inevitable. They force limitations. And then the greats show you how great they are. Brady’s first season with a new team is the perfect example. There were shaky moments, but overall he was fantastic. His growing comfort with Coach Bruce Arians’s offense is clear. He’s getting rid of the ball quicker. He’s throwing and completing deep passes that he was reluctant to try for most of the season’s first half. He put up some ridiculous numbers against terrible teams late in the regular season to enhance his stats, but it appears the Bucs are on the right pace of improvement.
Before the season, I thought it was most realistic to expect the Bucs just to make the playoffs this year; they did that and advanced a round. I always thought next season was the true championship-or-bust year. They might be a little ahead. We will see. The Saints already have thumped them twice this season.
Brady and Brees, rivals for perhaps the last time Sunday, swapped text messages early last week. Surely there’s an old man joke to be had there, but since I’m their age, I will refrain.
“That’s 85 years and a lot of football experience that’s going to be on the field Sunday,” Brees said.
He has considered a high-stakes meeting “inevitable” ever since Brady signed with Tampa Bay.
“I envisioned this game happening because I knew our aspirations as a team, to be in the playoffs and beyond,” Brees said. “And I certainly knew what he was bringing to the Bucs and that talented roster. And so I think this is probably where we all envisioned being at the point in the season.”
Brady and his social media team have had fun with this matchup. They have had fun all season, but their “History Channel” tweet with comically aged photos of the quarterbacks may have been their best.
Brady and Brees are enjoying the buildup to this showdown. It lets you know that they see the exit sign, too.
“He’s a lot younger than me,” Brady joked. “I mean, he’s 18 months younger. Eighteen months ago, I felt pretty good. So I’ve got a little advanced age on him and experience. But I’m hanging in there.”
Don’t let the self-deprecation fool you. Neither Brady nor Brees is ready for a rocking chair. They’re not here to reminisce, not when there’s more history to make.