METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees started smiling midway through the question.
Does the 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback concern himself with the possibility of a drop-off?
Does he study the history of quarterbacks his age, trying to figure out what the signs would be or how to combat it as he begins his 19th NFL training camp?
“Yes,” Brees said unapologetically, laughing at his decisive answer. “I study all that stuff.”
“I feel like I’m pretty aware of what you lose with the aging process. So everything I do from a training perspective, from a recovery perspective, is to combat that,” Brees said. “You just try to stay ahead of that curve.
“And so far, I feel like I’m beating it.”
At some point, Brees’ age is bound to catch up with him. As quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi cracked, Brees won’t be out here doing this at age 60.
But Brees, Lombardi, Saints coach Sean Payton, Brees’ longtime trainer Todd Durkin and others all insisted that we didn’t see the beginning of some sort of steep decline at the end of last season -- when Brees fell back to earth in December after he played maybe the best football of his life over the first three months of the season.
“One of my favorite books is called, ‘Fooled by Randomness,’ and we’re always looking for patterns. And sometimes things just happen,” Lombardi said. “Listen, we didn’t just score 48 points and then all of a sudden, one day later, age caught up to him. That’s ridiculous, it’s absurd.
“So people look and there’s maybe two throws that season where he had someone open and didn’t get it deep enough [including an underthrown interception on the first play of the playoff win over Philadelphia]. We look at film from ’13 where that happened too. So to look at that season, he had his highest quarterback rating ever, his highest completion percentage ever. And for people to say it stopped because overnight in the last three games all the sudden he got old, that’s just people looking for stuff.
“One day that will come. But it certainly hasn’t come for him yet. I mean, he threw two deep balls [in Saturday’s practice that looked great]. C’mon. He’s still got it all in there.”
There are two logical reasons people are looking for stuff: (A) history, and (B) Brees’ stark drop-off in production last December.
The history part is actually evolving, thanks to both Brees and Tom Brady, who just won his sixth Super Bowl ring at age 41. Guys know how to eat better, exercise smarter, focus more on recovery, etc. But we did recently see Peyton Manning hit a wall at age 39 and Brett Favre at age 40. So people will always wonder if a magic number exists for every arm.
Brees’ late-season decline is harder to interpret. He was playing out of his mind through the first 11 games, throwing 29 touchdown passes with just two interceptions while averaging 285 yards per game with an astounding passer rating of 127.3. Not only did the Saints score 48 points against the Philadelphia Eagles during that stretch, they also scored 45, 43, 43 and 40.
But then over Brees’ final six games, including the playoffs, he averaged just 234.5 yards per game with a total of seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 88.7. His numbers dropped significantly when throwing the ball down the field. And his season ended with two uncharacteristic miscues -- a missed slant pass to Michael Thomas two plays before the infamous pass interference no-call in the NFC Championship Game, then an interception while being hit in overtime.
Brees, Payton and Lombardi all pointed to a combination of factors for his struggles -- from poor execution to better defensive performances to game flow. Two obvious issues were a series of injuries across the Saints’ offensive line and a lack of reliable pass-catchers beyond Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
Payton also commended Brees for his performance in the playoff win over Philadelphia (he had 301 yards and two TDs after that opening interception) and the first three-plus quarters of the NFC Championship Game. And Payton said he never changed any of his game-planning based on any perceived limitations.
“Realistically, as we grade the film and grade the player, there hasn’t been that moment where we’ve looked and thought, ‘Man, back in the day we used to complete those.’ I don’t think we’ve seen that,” Payton said on The Rich Eisen Show podcast, adding that he and Brees have never talked about how much longer the QB’s career will last.
“Not even like a tingly dance around it at all,” Payton said.
When Brees was asked what he would say to the critics about his late-season performance, he replied, “Well, were we winning? … We just weren’t beating people 48-7.”
The Saints did finish 3-1 in Brees’ final four starts of the regular season, including an ugly loss at Dallas, a solid win at Tampa Bay, an ugly win at Carolina and a high-scoring thriller at home against Pittsburgh.
“I mean, you go from the first 12 weeks where we were breaking every record known to man, and so we were playing at a crazy level. And so maybe we just came back down to more of a human level,” Brees continued. “We weren't as efficient. Just missed on some things that should have been routine stuff and maybe didn't catch some of the breaks that we were catching early. But no, nothing major.”
Brees does work diligently to make sure “nothing major” arises, though.
He has for years.
Much like Brady, Brees has intently studied his diet and exercise routines, adding elements that he believes can help him keep defying the aging process. Both have insisted that they think they can keep playing at a high level until age 45, at least.
For example, Brees stopped throwing on Wednesdays during the regular season a few years ago because of his emphasis on recovery.
“Certainly he knows as you get older you start losing certain things,” Lombardi said. “And he knows how to compensate for that, whether it’s, ‘Hey I’m gonna get a little bit more mobility so I can get more torque in my throw’ or, ‘I’m gonna take two extra inches on this stride.’ You know he’s got everything mathematically figured out what he’s gonna do with his throwing motion to compensate for anything he might think he’s losing.”
"I feel like I'm pretty aware of what you lose with the aging process. So everything I do from a training perspective, from a recovery perspective, is to combat that." Drew Brees
Durkin said one of the things that Brees added to his workout routine this offseason was an increase in fascial stretch therapy, among other tweaks. Brees also has focused heavily on his core strength for several years.
“When we work out, we’re still gonna work out hard, we’re gonna be intense,” Durkin said. “I’ve gotta monitor the volume a little bit more. But the big change is the recovery. And just making sure he’s getting all his body work and pilates and all the other ancillary type movements that are gonna keep him fresh and limber and flexible.”
Durkin is hardly an impartial audience. But he insisted that Brees looked as sharp as ever over the past month while they were training in Southern California. Durkin said he showed video of Brees’ footwork to his son, who is a high school quarterback.
“I don’t know if Drew is necessarily gonna torch you with a 60-yard bomb on a consistent basis. But I can tell you what, when it comes to 35 yards and in and the high-percentage passes, man, his feet and his quick release is as good as ever,” Durkin said. “I think this offseason, because of the way last season ended, it took him a little bit longer to get to the point where he was ready to go. He probably took a month off. But a month ago, I saw a switch take place. And all of a sudden, you see the Drew Brees that everyone expects.
“I don’t think the wall for Drew is gonna be a physical wall. I don’t. I think that would happen at like 45, 46 years old for him, the way he takes impeccable care of himself. I think it’s just gonna be, ‘Mentally, can he prepare for another season with the energetic demand it takes?’ Drew, as you know, is so maniacally focused in-season. The energy demand it takes to be a quarterback at his level is as much taxing as the physical aspect.”
For now, anyway, Durkin said Brees has both boxes checked.
“I don’t know when it’s gonna be Drew’s last year. No one really does, and I don’t think Drew does. But I can tell you this, he is so much in the now, so much in the moment of like every huddle or every practice or every conversation. You really could tell in the last month he was just enjoying the process,” Durkin said. “I think he recognizes that there aren’t a lot of snaps left. There aren’t a lot of years left. And he loves the nucleus of this team. And that’s what drives him.”
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan joked that he is convinced both Brees and Brady will play until they’re 50 or 55, that they’re “just seeing who can outlast the other.”
“I mean, the throwing technique is still there, intermediate routes are always gonna be there. Their mind is what sets them apart,” Jordan said. “There’s not too many minds like Drew Brees.”
Brees, meanwhile, has refused to put any sort of timetable on his career, saying for the past couple of seasons that he is taking it one year at a time.
And as long as he’s out here, Brees figures he can keep adding to his repertoire.
“By no means have I arrived,” Brees said. “I had a coach tell me, ‘As long as you're green, you will continue to grow, but as soon as you’re ripe, you’ll soon be rotten.’ As soon as you think you know it all, you’re done.
“So I’m still green. I’ve still got things to learn.”