Drew Brees watches quarterbacks differently than the rest of us do, of course, with a far greater understanding of the fine points of their performance and an empathy for the conditions that shape their careers. The New Orleans Saints star pays close attention to what the other top QBs do each week, although he admits that the great ones -- and here, Brees obviously should be included -- probably do not fully grasp how extraordinary this quarterbacking era is, because they are too busy focusing on the moment, and the next opponent, to take a longer view. They all are, Brees said, just trying "to scratch out another year here, another year there."
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But when Brees answered a question this weekend about the confluence of quarterbacking play by him and the most exalted of his peers, the 35-year-old made a prediction for another year that should make defensive backs queasy -- a notion that should make fans, some of whom might only appreciate this moment after it is over, take notice.
"Listen, Brett Favre had one of the greatest seasons of his incredible career when he was 39," Brees said in an email response to questions. "Kurt Warner had some remarkable success later in his career. I played with Doug Flutie when he was 42, and (he) still had the skills and the knowledge. I watch what Peyton (Manning) and Tom (Brady) are doing in their late 30s and certainly that inspires you to think that maybe our best is yet to come."
Maybe this year, in fact.
The top four quarterbacks in the game today -- Manning, Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Brees himself -- are all in their 30s (Rodgers just barely), and they all could finish the 2014 season ranked among the top five signal-callers in NFL history in career QB rating (Rodgers and Manning are currently one and two, Brady and Brees six and seven). Brady and Brees are almost certain to both end the season in the top four of career passing yards -- where Manning, coming off the best statistical year of his career, is already comfortably perched at No. 2, behind only Favre. Brees is fifth, just 394 yards -- basically, one very good game -- behind John Elway for fourth place. Brady is seventh, but less than 2,000 yards behind Brees.
In trying to divine why these four have alighted on the NFL at exactly the same moment, Brees gives a nod to the organizational stability all four have enjoyed and to some of the receivers they have been surrounded with. The complementary pieces around Brady are arguably of a lesser caliber than those that surround the other three, and have been for several years. Although the Patriots are expected to have the offense's second most critical cog -- tight end Rob Gronkowski -- back from injury.
But the factor that might push those four -- and even their younger or less-talented brethren -- to new, unimaginable heights is the latest crackdown on contact between defenders and receivers. When the NFL cracked down similarly in 2004, it spurred the current passing explosion we are still in. Consider that in 2003, just two quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards. Last year, nine quarterbacks eclipsed 4,000 -- and two, Manning and Brees, flew past 5,000.
"I certainly think you're going to see a rise," said Tom Moore, the offensive guru who was Manning's mentor in Indianapolis and now is with the Arizona Cardinals. "How much, I don't know. You get into situations and it's the players' ability and the coaching emphasis. I see younger coaches emphasizing the passing game, emphasizing the deep passing game. I think it will continue to get better and get bigger."
Brees concedes rules that seem to tilt the playing field toward the offense play a "small part" in the soaring quarterback play.
"But that shouldn't take away from how good the quarterbacks like Tom, Peyton and Aaron are," Brees said. "It's probably also a credit to how sophisticated the offenses are and how great the athletes are, but remember that the athletes are on both sides of the ball. I think there are probably a lot of things that contribute to that, but it's clear that you are witnessing some of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game out there right now, and they are throwing to some of the greatest athletes to ever play the game. And you throw that all together and you get the numbers that you are seeing right now."
There is little question that a confluence of factors has created the perfect environment for the most gifted quarterbacks to make their assault on the record books -- the advances in fitness and nutrition that allow players to manage their bodies at a later age shouldn't be discounted, Moore said. The offensive shift, and the officiating point of emphasis, will get a very early test on Thursday night, when the Seattle Seahawks' smothering defense -- headlined by the "Legion of Boom" secondary that yielded a league-low 172 passing yards per game in 2013 -- faces Rodgers' Packers. Rodgers played just eight full regular-season games last year, averaging 314 yards in those contests. That average, applied over a 16-game season, would have given Rodgers 5,024 passing yards.
The Seahawks' Super Bowl run felt a bit like a throwback, based on the defense and a powerful running game -- not an explosive passing game. But the current conditions might encourage even Seattle to change a bit. In the preseason, Russell Wilson completed 33 of his 42 pass attempts for 437 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. And the return of Percy Harvin (seven receptions for 92 yards in the preseason) is expected to inspire the Seahawks to use the deep pass, at which Wilson excels, more often.
At age 75, Moore has worked through several generations of players. He was a coach in Pittsburgh during the late 1970s and '80s, when the run was still the focal point of offense for many teams, including the Steelers.
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"I certainly know the value of the running game, but in Indianapolis, as long as I had Peyton, I was never really that concerned with rushing the football," Moore said. "You want to keep the ball in his hands. When you see all these guys with their great abilities, people say, 'That's how we're going to win.'
"Back then, the game was great. The game has evolved. You and I, when we were kids, we thought TV was great. Now look at flat screens -- flat screens are great. The game is great now. And 20 years from now, it will be greater."