The average NFL career is short — not many players get to stick around into their 30s, let alone their 40s. The few who play that long don’t often make much of an impact. SB Nation NFL is celebrating those rare players who defy Father Time and play quality football much longer than most with an all-old guy week.
Outside of kicker, there might not be a position in the NFL that caters toward older players more than quarterback.
There was Sammy Baugh in the 1940s and 50s. Len Dawson in the 70s. Brett Favre through the 90s and 2000s. Tom Brady’s current reign of dominance. Quarterbacks have routinely been able to play for a long time, even in a sport as brutal as football.
In the past two decades especially, we’ve seen more quarterbacks play deep into their 30s — and older. For the 2019 season alone, seven projected starting quarterbacks are at least 35
That doesn’t mean they’re not capable of playing like they’re still in their 20s, though. Here are seven of the best performances by a quarterback over the age of 35 in the last 21 years.
After missing the Pro Bowl for eight straight years, Randall Cunningham had his comeback season in 1998 with the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, having prime Randy Moss and Cris Carter as your main targets would help any quarterback, but Cunningham still put together the most prolific season of his career, throwing for 3,704 yards, 34 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions.
His most memorable game that year came against the rival Green Bay Packers.
At 35 years old, Cunningham lit up the Packers to the tune of 442 yards and four touchdowns. Cunningham threw two touchdowns to Moss and another touchdown to Jake Reed, which required some ridiculous accuracy.
He perfectly put the ball away from the defensive back, while being pressured by the Packers’ defensive line that featured Reggie freaking White.
(Outside of the throw, just look at how easily White tosses the right tackle before the running back comes in to help.)
The degree of difficulty on that pass and the quality of his performance earn Cunningham a spot on this list.
Following a mediocre season with the New York Giants in 2004, Kurt Warner had a late-career resurgence with the Arizona Cardinals. He played five seasons in Arizona and led the Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance in the 2008 season. Yet one of his most impressive games came the next year.
The Cardinals’ 41-21 win on the road against the Chicago Bears featured surgical throw after surgical throw from Warner. Even though he only accounted for 261 yards through the air, he had five touchdown passes, including a six-yard dart to tight end Ben Patrick that had the smallest margin for error.
Arizona went 10-5 that year and eventually faltered against the Saints in the Divisional Round. At 38 years old, Warner threw for 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in what turned out to be his final season in the league.
Brett Favre, 40 years old: Vikings vs. Giants, Jan. 3, 2010
Kurt Warner wasn’t the only old-timer to go off in 2009. That same year, Brett Favre led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in his first season suiting up for his longtime rival. He also happened to have one of his best seasons in years.
The defining game of Favre’s stint with the Vikings was his trip back to Lambeau Field, but he had another unforgettable performance against the Giants in the final week of the regular season.
Favre smoked the Giants’ defense that day with 316 yards and four touchdowns on just 31 attempts.
Minnesota cruised to a 44-7 win, but its season ended in heartbreak with an overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. That doesn’t take away from what Favre did at 40 years old: 4,202 yards, 33 touchdowns, and seven interceptions is a terrific season no matter the age.
Peyton Manning’s 2013 season was one for the ages. For the season, he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns — both of which are still NFL records. He also helped the offense set a handful of records, including the most points scored in a season.
Manning didn’t waste any time getting that historic season started. In the Broncos’ opener against the Ravens, he totaled 462 passing yards and seven (!) touchdowns in a 49-27 win. Yes, seven. Like one more than six.
His touchdowns weren’t just the result of great scheme creating easy throws, either. Manning stood tall in the pocket and delivered strikes while getting hit by the Ravens’ defenders.
Manning’s seven-touchdown game is also an NFL record, though one he shares with seven other quarterbacks. Still, Manning, who was 37 years old at the time, is the oldest quarterback to have ever thrown seven touchdowns in a game.
Denver’s season ended in disaster with a 43-8 blowout loss in Super Bowl 48, but Manning was able to get another ring two years later on his way into retirement.
Drew Brees, 35 years old: Saints vs. Packers, Oct. 26, 2014
Drew Brees has had a lot of gaudy statistical performances in his tenure with the Saints, but his 2014 evisceration of the Packers’ defense was truly special.
Brees threw three touchdowns compared to just five incompletions. For the day, he completed 27 of his 32 passes for 311 yards and had no turnovers. His trademark deep accuracy was on display, including a 50-yard to Brandin Cooks and this 45-yard completion to Kenny Stills:
The game was tied at 16 going into halftime, but then Brees hit the kill switch and out-dueled Aaron Rodgers in a primetime matchup. In the second half, Brees tossed each of his three touchdowns on consecutive drives to open up a 37-16 lead. The Saints ended up winning, 44-23.
Although New Orleans only went 7-9 that season, Brees led the league in passing yards, attempts, and completions. He is still going strong today at 40 years old and recently broke the record for all-time passing yards.
His game against the Packers might not be one that people come back to often, but the then-35-year old quarterback was so efficient in how dismantled the Packers that it’s worthy of this list.
While Tom Brady’s game against the Houston Texans in 2017 was far from the biggest game he’s played in, it showed off why he’s considered by many to be the greatest quarterback ever.
Then-rookie Deshaun Watson put up a good fight against Brady’s Patriots, passing for 301 yards and two touchdowns. But Brady — per usual — had the last laugh.
Brady threw for 378 yards and a whopping five touchdowns to lead the Patriots to a 36-33 victory. His best play of the game came with 30 seconds left when he completed a 25-yard game-winning pass to Brandin Cooks while he was being crushed by Jadeveon Clowney. Once Bill O’Brien let the Patriots get the ball back for one final drive, everyone knew what was happening next.
The ball was thrown on a dime — it barely beat the safety hurtling down to intercept it and landed in the arms of Cooks, who had an inch to get his feet down inbounds.
Brady would go on to be named NFL MVP that season for the third time in his career, becoming the oldest player, at 40 years old, to ever take home the award.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, 35 years old: Buccaneers vs. Saints, Sept. 9, 2018
Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t have the illustrious career of Brady or Brees, but he gave the football world an all-time performance to kick off the 2018 season. It wasn’t just great for an older quarterback — it was one of the best games by any quarterback over the last 25 years.
Fitzpatrick completed 21 of his 28 passing attempts for 417 yards and four touchdowns and added another touchdown on the ground — on a zone read keeper no less!
We’re talking about a 35-year-old journeyman quarterback on his seventh team pulling this off, seemingly out of nowhere.
In that game, Fitzpatrick’s gunslinging style of quarterbacking worked at its highest form. He was aggressive, ballsy, and not afraid to throw deep down the field, like when he lobbed a beautiful 50-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans that hit him in stride — and left Marshon Lattimore in the dust.
Statistically, Fitzpatrick has been all over the place through his career — he’s the only active quarterback with a six-touchdown and a six-interception game on his resume — but in Week 1 of last year, the Fitzmagic was in full force.