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New Orleans' Drew Brees, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady provide historic backdrop to regular-season opener

NFL all-time leaders in passing yards, passing touchdowns headline game


Fifteen or 20 years from now, this will happen again.

Or, perhaps, 25 to 30 years from now.

Or – just maybe – it'll never happen again.

The convergence that will occur in the New Orleans Saints' regular-season opener against Tampa Bay on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will provide the NFL with a unicorn-ish matchup: a pair of 40-plus year old starting quarterbacks who, combined, are the most statistically accomplished men ever to play the position.

The Saints offer 41-year-old Drew Brees, the Super Bowl XLIV MVP and the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards (77,416), passing touchdowns (547), 5,000-yard passing seasons (five) and a handful of other marks, whose 163 regular-season victories ranks fourth on the all-time list.

The Buccaneers counter with 43-year-old Tom Brady, a free agent signee who, in 20 seasons with the Patriots, stacked six Super Bowl victories (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI and LIII) and four Super Bowl MVP trophies, an NFL-record 219 regular-season victories, and checks in second on the all-time lists in passing yards (74,571) and passing touchdowns (541).

The two have played against each other six times previously, but never as division rivals.

"It makes me remember back to 1999 when we played against each other in college," Brees said. "The (Purdue) Boilermakers traveled up to the Big House (Michigan Stadium). Unfortunately, that one didn't end too well for us, but I think, little did we know, we would have the opportunities that we've had in the NFL.

"I'm sure I speak for both of us when I say that, I think we both pinch ourselves, the blessing and the opportunity to be able to play this long, play for so many great teams and with so many great players."

And, Brees might have added, to produce so many great plays themselves.

Neither would have lasted as long as he has in a starting role if he hadn't been consistently productive, and healthy.

Brady joined Tampa Bay after two decades with New England, and immediately the Bucs are cast as Super Bowl contenders.

"It's been fantastic," Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said. "When you're dealing with a guy (with) that much experience and that much success, you're going to speak a different language when you're talking to a guy like that. It's been everything we'd hoped for. He's been great for the guys, leadership qualities and playing quarterback and doing everything we've asked of him."

"Where do you begin?" Saints Coach Sean Payton asked. "His consistency, his longevity, ultimately the Super Bowl success, the amount of games that he's won – all of those things. He's a tremendous leader, he's got fantastic arm talent, he's a very good athlete. I think it's hard to put into just one answer. He's going to elevate the level of play and the culture of his team there. All the things that go into someone that doesn't come around very often and, obviously, a first-ballot Hall of Fame player."

While the current roster of Saints players collectively haven't had much exposure to Brady, All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis, who spent five of his first six NFL seasons with the Jets – a division rival of the Patriots' – knows well of Brady's capabilities.

"One thing about Tom is his preparation is just second to none," Davis said. "The attention to detail, the knowing different formations, knowing different tendencies, knowing how to get his offense in the right play at the right time, knowing how to stay poised.

"It's no accident he's one of the best ever do it. And you can tell that goes from his preparation, how he takes care of himself. How he stays poised under pressure. Just being able to see the game and having so much experience in the game, you're not going to really surprise him with too much stuff.

"The thing you give him the most credit for is what he does in those fourth quarters when the game is on the line. Walking to the line of scrimmage, being able to get his team in the right play, best play call for their offense, having a good understanding of and anticipation of what the defense is going to do.

"Going against a quarterback that can see the field that well, has that much awareness, that much experience is always going to be a challenge. Fortunately, we get to go against somebody just as good at doing that in our preparation and so I think we get as good a look of it as a defense that anybody else can get."

That's a reference to Brees, who is entering his 20th NFL season, 15th with the Saints. Davis, a free agent signee in 2018, said playing with Brees was a substantial lure for him to choose New Orleans.

"His longevity, how he's played at this high level for so long," Arians said of Brees. "I hated to see him get hurt last year, but he bounced back and had a great season."

Brees missed five games in 2019 with a torn ligament in his thumb. He returned to the lineup, started the final nine games and during that stretch, he completed 246 of 330 passes (74.5 percent) for 2,571 yards and 25 touchdowns, with two interceptions. He didn't throw an interception in the final five regular-season games.

Neither Brees nor Brady has seen a significant dip in production as he has aged, and Payton believes seeing productive quarterbacks playing into their 40s could become the norm.

"They're not going to be outliers," Payton said. "The game improves, there's science involved. We study it more, we learn more, we learn more about rehydrating, we learn more about injury prevention, we're learning more about what sleep does, nutrition – all of these things.

"Look, there's still a picture floating around somewhere of (Chiefs Hall of Fame quarterback) Len Dawson smoking a cigarette at halftime. It's different (nowadays), and it's going to continue to trend that way because that's where the money is, and it's to the players' advantage and to the players' best interest to play longer and extend their careers. Certainly, two of these guys that we're going to see Sunday have done that."

"I think every NFL team's approach to how you're training, how you're recovering, how you're caring for players, how we're training in the offseason, all those things have been in evolution as well," Brees said. "And I think we're armed and equipped with a lot more information now than we ever have been.

"And so the ability to incorporate those things into what we do from a training and recovery perspective I think, allows us to stay in our prime longer. I've always used the term 'prolong your prime'. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do. Time is going to get us at some point, but we're trying to beat him out right now."

How much longer they'll be able to win the battle – or will want to win the battle – is anyone's guess. Brees has been involved in three consecutive heartbreaking playoff losses, by Saints teams that believed they possessed the right mix to win the Super Bowl.

"Hey, this time, man, I'm on borrowed time, I got nothing to lose," he said. "So I'm turning it loose and letting the chips fall where they may.

"I know that everything happens for a reason. And in most cases, failure is the best teacher. That's the approach I've always taken, that's the approach this team has taken. And I feel like we found a way to garner strength from each one of these moments from over the last few years. And it's only made us better. And it's only brought us closer to the ultimate cross."

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