Six special players who are challenging 'Father Time'

The use of modern training techniques, medical advances and healthy diets are all ways that players can extend their careers. But athletes must have all of these, as well as great talent and a little luck, to prolong their careers.

Also working against current players extending their careers: They play more games than their counterparts did prior to the NFL's move to a 16-game regular season. Ray Nitschke was a great linebacker who played 15 years, but he only played in 190 regular-season games. Tedy Bruschi has already played 189 games in 13 seasons. Chuck Bednarik is a legend, but he took the field 169 times in his 14 NFL seasons, while Ray Lewis has been out there 178 times in 13 seasons.

What makes this year different for a few of the special players challenging "Father Time" is the amount of big money they're earning. If a football team was run like an insurance company, things would be a lot different if age and experience were factored in objectively. Go buy life insurance, and your age is right there on a chart with maybe a small discount for being a non-smoker or having no serious illnesses. However, the chart doesn't lie to the company.

A number of NFL players are trying to make the case that they can defy the odds and are worth the money -- and are even worth extended contracts, in some cases.

Here are the six players who are changing the odds of how long an athlete can play at a high level in the NFL. Thanks to the resources in the NFL.com archives, here is a sense of the odds these "senior warriors" are facing when compared to their predecessors at their respective positions.

1. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons

Gonzalez is a phenomenal athlete preparing for his 13th season in the NFL. He's coming off back-to-back seasons with his best production. When you ponder the number of tight ends who have played in the NFL for 13 seasons or more, you quickly realize it's a very small number.

There are 975 tight ends listed in the historical database, and only 21 of them ever got to their 13th season. That is roughly 2 percent of all tight ends, with only 12 of the 975 ever getting past the 13th season. Not even the great Mike Ditka made it to year 13, as he called it quits in year 12. A number of the 21 players were strictly backups late in their careers, and only one player had real production ... Shannon Sharpe. He had 62 receptions, 770 yards and eight touchdowns in his 14th season. Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome only managed to catch 23 passes in his 13th season, and even though Jackie Smith lasted 16 years, he caught just eight passes after his 13th season.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan thinks that Gonzalez is ready for another 80- to 90-reception season. No other player has ever fought off age like that at the tight end position. If Gonzalez gets to his 17th season -- which is possible -- he will have played longer than any other tight end.

2. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens

Lewis is entering the 14th year of his distinguished career. NFL.com had 3,072 linebackers in the historical database, and only 35 made it to their 14th season.

The chances of a linebacker making it to his 14th season, like Lewis, is less likely than Gonzalez making it to his 13th year as a tight end. The percentage of linebackers who have made it to their 13th season is a miniscule 1 percent.

During the offseason, Lewis signed a new contract extension. The Ravens great probably feels like he can keep up the top-level play for years. However, history would suggest otherwise.

After the 14th season, only 12 linebackers in NFL history made it to their 15th seasons. Only five linebackers made it beyond their 15th season: Monte Coleman, Hardy Nickerson, Bill Romanowski, Junior Seau and Clay Matthews, who has the distinction of being the longest-tenured linebacker in NFL history with 18 seasons in the league. Matthews, whose son Clay Matthews is a rookie with the Green Bay Packers, played in 278 regular-season games. It's likely that Lewis feels he has another 100 games in him.

3. Tedy Bruschi, LB, New England Patriots

Bruschi is facing the same situation as Lewis. Already having endured a stroke, Bruschi has played in 11 more regular-season games than Lewis as he enters his 14th season.

4. Kerry Collins, QB, Tennessee Titans

Collins enters his 16th season in the league as the starter for the defending AFC South division champion Tennessee Titans. There are 974 quarterbacks in the historical database, and only 32 made it to their 16th season, or 3 percent of all NFL quarterbacks.

Collins is now in the company of Ken Anderson, John Brodie, John Elway, Rich Gannon, John Hadl, Ron Jaworski, Billy Kilmer, Warren Moon and others. However, if Collins makes it to his 17th season, he drops into the company of just 19 other quarterbacks. His contract extension calls for at least two more years, but a third year really puts him where only Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre have gone when it comes to production.

5. Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals

Warner only has 11 years of service in the NFL, but his age reflects a man who has been in the league a lot longer. Warner thinks he can play a few more years at a high level, but like an insurance company, his rates would reflect a different story.

6. Brett Favre, QB, retired

If Favre plays this season, he is truly headed into uncharted waters.

Favre already posts 18 years of NFL experience, and that puts him in the company of players such as Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen and Johnny Unitas, who called it a career following their 18th seasons in the league. If and when Favre takes the field for his 19th season -- 18th as a starter -- he really goes where no starter has gone before.

The quarterbacks with 18-plus years of NFL service weren't full-time starters at that stage of their careers.

George Blanda played 26 years, mostly as a kicker, and only attempted an average of 25 passes per year from his 18th season through his 26th season.

Earl Morrall made it to his 21st season, but he was a backup in his last eight seasons, averaging 80 pass attempts per year.

Vinny Testaverde also hit his 21st season, but he started just 10 games in his final three years in the league, producing just seven touchdowns to 12 interceptions and 21 sacks in that span.

Jim Hart, Len Dawson and Wade Wilson all made it to their 19th seasons. Dawson completed 93 of 140 passes that year, though he was sacked 23 times (once every six pass attempts). Hart threw seven passes in his final season, while Wilson did not throw a pass.

If Favre comes back this season -- and indications are that he will -- No. 4 will look "Father Time" right in the eye and introduce himself as the first visitor to a new place.

The smart money says not to pay these six players for very long, but it appears that all will defy the odds and shine in an elite group.

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