From time to time, broadcasters talk about age in the NFL, especially as Tom Brady seeks to redefine it. I wanted to write an article discussing Brady’s accomplishments as he heads into the latter stages of his career.
Briefly, your standard NFL trivia: George Blanda last played with the 1975 Oakland Raiders and threw a handful of passes that season. He retired at age 48, the oldest to play a game in NFL history.
That paints a picture of longevity that Brady, who will turn 44 just before the 2021 season begins, probably won’t match.
Not to diminish Blanda’s accomplishments, I’ll bring a little perspective to the argument. Blanda last started a game at age 41 and last lined up for more than a handful of plays at quarterback at age 42. Oakland had signed him for his last few seasons pretty much strictly as a kicker, which he did quite well until his retirement. Blanda’s career was remarkable.
About 60 players have played into their 40s in the entire history of the NFL. About half were kickers. It has been rare for a quarterback to play effectively after about the age of 37, but a few have.
John Elway retired after winning the Super Bowl with Denver at age 38 and seven months. Peyton Manning retired after winning the Super Bowl with Denver at age 39 and ten months. Brett Favre last started with Minnesota in 2010, at age 41 and two months. At the time, he was the second-oldest quarterback ever to hold the regular starting quarterback for an NFL team.
There are six quarterbacks who have started games at age 42 or later in NFL history. On January 17 of this year, two of them started against each other in the playoffs. Drew Brees was 42 and two days old. Brady was 43 and five months at the time. Brees’ New Orleans Saints lost and he has since retired.
Doug Flutie last started a game at age 42 and two months with San Diego in 2005, four years after he was last a regular starter. Brady is now fourth on the list of oldest quarterbacks to start a game.
Warren Moon was eight days past his 44th birthday when he last started a game with Kansas City in 2000. Vinny Testaverde was 26 days past his 44th birthday when he lasted started a game with Carolina in 2007. Both had been primarily backups for at least two seasons before those starts. Brady will pass both of them the next time he starts a game.
Moon started regularly for Seattle until four days past his 42nd birthday. That made him the oldest regular starting NFL quarterback in NFL history until Brady passed him in 2019. Brees would have passed Moon for second place had the Saints beaten Brady’s Buccaneers in the divisional playoffs earlier this year.
That leaves the oldest quarterback to start an NFL game: Steve DeBerg. On October 25, 1998, as the backup with Atlanta for Chris Chandler (who took that team to the Super Bowl, where they lost in Elway’s career finale), DeBerg started a game at age 44 years and nine months. DeBerg had been retired for five years before his old coach in Denver, Dan Reeves, talked him into that one season as a backup (DeBerg had spent a good portion of his career backing up Elway).
If Brady continues to start into the 2022 season, he will be the oldest quarterback ever to start a game. You’d also have to go back to the 1920s to find a non-kicker who even played in the league at that age.
I write this to underline the backstory behind the well-known Blanda trivia question. What Brady is doing has never been done before. In fact, aside from Brady, Moon, Brees and Favre, no quarterback in NFL history has even held a regular starting role as a quarterback after turning 41.
Does this mean 44 is the new 34? I doubt it. Extreme longevity is still players like Eli Manning retiring at 38 and Philip Rivers retiring (this year) just days past his 40th birthday. That’s more consistent with NFL history and advances in training. Brady simply defies age and I would be surprised if the records he’s setting are ever seriously challenged.