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How much longer can Drew Brees defy the age line?

by J.W. Miller on 08/20/19

I am writing this missive while sitting on a heating pad. I was lacing up my golf shoes this morning when I felt a twinge in my left side along the belt line. It wasn’t bad but it was annoying, especially since I had already completed my stretching followed by my three-mile Old Fartlek run-walk-run, all without incident. My training program is strictly designed to exempt me from the nagging pain so common to the mere mortals who exist in my age grouping. But there it was, and it persisted through the next few hours of golf. 

I finished playing and returned home, showered and then rubbed the afflicted area with this magical balm given to me by a golfing buddy. It’s not FDA-approved, but the label assures me it is used by “professional athletes, the Canadian military and over 3,500 health professionals.” That’s good enough for me! But then a thought hit me. If I have to put up with such physical frustrations at my age, what must it be like for Drew Brees? 

After all, to hear the sporting press tell it, he is ancient in his field and susceptible to any number of age-related maladies. He could collapse at any moment! After all, age is relative, and a professional football player beyond the age of 40 is only one step away from extinction. That was the thread running through a long analysis last week by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell who advanced the case that Brees might be nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. Of course, we all reluctantly admit that Brees is near the end of his career, but he has not shown irrefutable evidence he is there yet. Barnwell, on the other hand, tried to make the case that Brees already could be at the station with a ticket to Palookaville in his hand. 

Barnwell built his case by looking at the decline in Brees’ performance over his final four games of the 2018 season compared to the first 11 games, which Barnwell said could have been “the best stretch of play we’ve ever seen from an NFL quarterback.” The Saints started at 10-1 while averaging more than 37 points per game, but as the season wore on, Brees’ high level of skill declined in several areas. 

On deep passes, defined by the league as beyond 16 yards, Brees was “an absolute savage” during the dominant start, completing more than 60 percent, averaging nearly 17 yards per attempt along with nine touchdown passes and only one interception. During his final games, however, Brees completed just 41.3 percent of those passes, averaged 10.8 yards per attempt with only one TD pass and two interceptions. 

In red zone plays, Brees & Co. averaged 5.7 points per trip inside the 20-yard line through the first 12 weeks. From Week 13 on, however, the team  declined to 4.9 points per trip (which is not horrible and is actually the league average). Pressure was another bit of Barnwell’s statistical argument, showing that before Thanksgiving, teams sacked Brees on less than 13 percent of their pressures but the rest of the way that figure doubled, to 25 percent. 

Addressing the age factor directly, Barnwell looked to see if a late season decline is consistent with other top quarterbacks as they aged and concluded that “every quarterback in this age bracket has some chance of turning into a pumpkin in any given season without warning.” Retiring after significant, sudden declines were Brett Favre (41), Jim Kelly (36), Dan Marino (38) and Peyton Manning (39).  Injuries forced the retirements of Troy Aikman at age 34, and Steve Young at 38. But just maybe Brees and Patriots QB Tom Brady - who is 17 months older - fit into another category with John Elway and Joe Montana, both of whom retired at age 38 on their own terms. 

I know a city full of fans who hope Brees’ performance continues at a high level into 2019 because the alternatives to a healthy Brees don’t fill anyone with much comfort. Teddy Bridgewater has not given us any solace that he could step in and play at a Brees level right now. His preseason performance against first- and second-teamers has been uneven at best. The third man in the room, Taysom Hill, is everybody’s favorite non-starter and has had his moments. He reminded me of Fran Tarkenton in rallying the Saints over the Chargers on Sunday, but by the time he got into the game, the starters and many first-call backups have long put on their baseball caps. 

No, the best, and maybe the only, chance the Saints have to win another Super Bowl is a healthy Brees. And if he gets a twinge, I’ll even slip him a stick of my magical balm if that will keep him on the field.

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As if Sunday's debacle weren't enough, memories of Deion Sanders high-stepping to a pick-six in a 1994 victory over the Saints another reason your intrepid scribe hates the 49ers