Drew Brees will turn 39 in January and, for now, he’s set to become a free agent a couple of months after his birthday. His future is uncertain, but the best thing Brees can do for himself is post huge numbers.
That’s something he hasn’t had a problem doing for more than a decade.
If he does continue his prolific play, Brees has a strong chance at finishing his career as the NFL’s all-time king in passing yardage and passing touchdowns. Both coveted records are held by Peyton Manning but are well within Brees’ reach.
The question is whether Brees will be able to keep that pace as he approaches 40.
How much game does Brees have left?
Brett Favre, Warren Moon, and Vinny Testaverde are the only quarterbacks to ever start more than eight games after turning 40. Tom Brady will presumably be the fourth with his 40th birthday falling in the first week of August.
But for most NFL passers, the late 30s bring sharp drop-offs and the end of the road. Peyton Manning set the all-time mark in passing yards in 2015, but he had quickly become a shell of his former self at age 39.
After 4,727 passing yards and 39 touchdowns in 2014, he threw just nine touchdowns with 17 interceptions in 10 regular season games in 2015. The end came quick, and the reality is that it could strike just as fast for Brees.
The end hasn’t looked near, though.
"Drew is not 38," Saints linebacker Craig Robertson told NOLA.com. "That's just chronological right now. Drew is definitely like 26. He killed everybody in the conditioning test."
Back in 2005, Brees’ time with the San Diego Chargers ended with a labrum tear that required surgery to repair. Miami Dolphins doctors were so nervous about the injury that they advised the team to steer clear of signing Brees. But in 11 seasons with the Saints, he’s missed only two games.
Brees dealt with minor knee problems in 2010 and 2013 and had shoulder and foot injuries in 2015, but for the most part, he’s stayed healthy. So much so, that Brees believes he could play much longer.
#Saints QB Drew Brees on retirement: Taking it one year at a time, but I feel like I can play until I'm 45. It's a huge investment though— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) March 31, 2017
The numbers for Brees support his belief that he hasn’t slowed down at all. He led the NFL with 5,208 passing yards in 2016 — only the ninth 5,000-yard season in NFL history, five of which were done by Brees.
It’s anyone’s guess if ages 38 and 39 will be as nice to Brees as they were to Brady, but as long as his play doesn’t drop off, he could overtake Manning on the career leaderboards.
How much longer does Brees need to play to break records?
In 11 seasons with the Saints, Brees’ worst totals were 4,388 passing yards in 2009 and 26 touchdown passes in 2006. In both seasons, he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl.
The average season for Brees in his 11 years in New Orleans is a preposterous 4,888 yards, 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. But reaching Manning in 2016 in either yards or touchdowns wasn’t realistic.
Manning sits at 71,940 yards with 539 touchdowns. Brees has 66,111 yards and 465 touchdowns.
That leaves 5,830 yards and 75 touchdowns between Brees and Manning. The single-season passing records are 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, so let’s go ahead and assume Brees doesn’t reach either mark in 2017.
He’ll also have to deal with the loss of Brandin Cooks, who was traded to the Patriots in March.
It should take Brees just two seasons as a starter to become the yardage leader, but it may take him three to become the touchdown leader. Even replicating his 37-touchdown season of last year two more times would only tie Manning.
How realistic are Brees’ chances?
The 2017 season is pivotal for Brees. With his contract set to expire in March, the Saints will likely want to bring back their starter for another season so long as the wheels don’t fall off.
But that leash will probably be short. New Orleans will need to start looking for a quarterback of the future, and if Brees takes a step backward, moving on from the passer could be a realistic option in the 2018 or 2019 offseason. A long-term extension isn’t likely for Brees.
He plans to play out the final year of his current contract and leave the negotiations for next offseason, but that means the pressure is on.
To continue to be the quarterback for the Saints, Brees can’t just stick around as his stats dwindle. He’ll likely need to continue to produce big numbers and show little to no signs of slowing.
“It's mind over matter, I think, in a lot of ways,” Brees told NOLA.com. “Yes, there's a lot of things that I do to take care of my body, but ... my approach to the game is I tell myself I'm young, I act like I'm young, I approach the game like I can do anything I want to do. I'm smart about it, but ... that's how I keep my edge."
Forecasting what things would look like if Brees isn’t able to keep his current pace is tough. Would he be willing to play elsewhere if New Orleans moves on? Would he even continue to try to stay in the league (even if it’s still with the Saints) if his play dropped off?
It’s probably a safe bet that Brees can tally another 6,000 yards, but the odds are probably stacked against him throwing 75 more touchdowns.