METAIRIE, La. -- It happened three years ago, and it was very purposeful.
Drew Brees had just turned 38 years old. He had just missed the playoffs for the third straight season. And he decided he was going to start embracing his football mortality.
“Prior to that, it was like, 'This is gonna last forever,' right?” said the New Orleans Saints quarterback, who paused when asked what changed.
“I don’t know. Because I recognized that I was closer to the end than I was the beginning. ... Just reality,” Brees told ESPN in a recent conversation as he heads into the playoffs for the ninth time in his 19-year career.
“When you realize it’s not gonna last forever, I think your career kind of flashes before your eyes. And I think you just become very grateful for the opportunity, he said. "And I think that gratitude also gives you a great sense of responsibility. And the motivation to -- while you’re in this moment, while you’re in this chapter of your life -- to just give it all you’ve got and enjoy it as much as you can. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone. ...
“So going into the 2017 season, I said, ‘I’m just playing it one year at a time.’ Like, ‘I’m not saying this is my last year, I’m not saying it’s not my last year. I’m truly gonna play it like it is my last and just stay in the moment and enjoy each and every one of these like it could be gone.'"
Brees acknowledged his approach has “absolutely” made the Saints’ last two gut-wrenching playoff defeats even more painful -- first the “Minneapolis Miracle” following the 2017 season and then the infamous missed pass-interference call in last year’s NFC Championship Game.
“But I also believe God has a plan,” Brees said, “and that that was gonna bring us all together and strengthen us and poise us to do whatever we’re gonna do in the future.”
Aside from the extra heartache, everything else about Brees’ approach seems to be working brilliantly as he closes in on his 41st birthday on Jan. 15.
The Saints have won more regular-season games than any team in the NFL in the past three years, winning three straight NFC South championships with records of 11-5, 13-3 and 13-3 (though somehow they got stuck with the No. 3 seed this year as they prepare to host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday).
And Brees has earned the nickname “Benjamin Button” from Saints coaches -- a reference to the Brad Pitt movie character who aged backward.
Brees just posted the best passer rating of his career: 116.3, which beat the previous high of 115.7 that he set in 2018. In the past three seasons, he has thrown 79 touchdown passes with just 17 interceptions while recording the three best completion percentages in NFL history (74.4% in 2018, 74.3% in 2019, 72.0% in 2017).
He has been especially hot in the past four weeks, throwing 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
And he has done this despite missing five games in September and October because of thumb surgery.
Even the uber-positive Brees, who was once anointed as “annoyingly optimistic” by former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, admitted he didn’t know if this would be possible when his thumb collided with the swatting arm of Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald in Week 2.
“Yeah, listen, I'd be lying to you back when the thumb injury happened," Brees said. "Because think about it, you’re talking about a guy's throwing hand. And your thumb is pretty darn important, right? So yeah, I was worried -- not that I wouldn't ever get it back. But it's like, ‘Man, how long is this gonna take? And is there gonna be that anxiety when I get back? And are there gonna be those weeks where you have it on one throw, but then don’t have it on another?'"
If you know anything about Brees, you know that he took the doctors’ projected timetable as a personal challenge. They projected six weeks, so he was determined to come back in five. And sure enough, he threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 8 win over Arizona.
Seven weeks later, Brees broke the NFL record for career touchdown passes while completing a league-record 29 of 30 passes in a Monday Night Football win over Indianapolis.
“It’s just an amazing career that is still building. I marvel at what he’s been able to do,” Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre said on his SiriusXM NFL Radio show.
Favre, who famously came out of retirement before having a career resurgence at age 40, had Brees on as a guest recently. Favre talked about Brees’ competitive spirit being as important to his success as his physical and mental tools.
“I don’t see any signs of you slowing down,” Favre said. “As long as you love it and love to compete, and I know you do, and stay relatively healthy, who knows what you can accomplish?
“And that’s really what’s scary for the other teams. Because having the talent, but not really caring as much about it, is one thing. But having the talent and being determined to win regardless of whatever obstacle’s in your way is another.”
Brees agreed, saying he isn’t trying to just “maintain” at age 40. He’s trying to “improve” every year.
Although Brees’ production tailed off at the end of last season, his performance this year has quieted any speculation about an imminent decline.
He has been meticulous about his workout and nutrition regimens, working with longtime confidants like throwing coach Tom House and trainer Todd Durkin to figure out ways to make up for anything that might be physically deteriorating.
And he said recently that it’s no coincidence his completion percentage keeps going up and his interceptions keep going down while he has focused on being as efficient as possible.
“Combine that with all the experience and wisdom, and I think that just allows you to maintain your prime for longer and longer,” Brees said. “I really do feel like I should be better every week and every year.”
Kurt Warner, a Hall of Famer who retired at the age of 38, said it’s “very, very tough” to walk away, “especially when you can still play at a high level.”
“It’s kind of crazy. Like, my second-to-last game that I ever played could arguably be my best game,” said Warner, who threw five touchdown passes in a 2009 playoff win over Green Bay before his career ended with a loss to Brees and the Saints the following week. “I always kind of thought, I’m probably not ever gonna lose the fire and the competitive part of it. But there’s gonna be a time where the preparation and the expectation kind of outweighs those three hours on Sunday or whatever it is. And that’s kind of what happened for me ... But that’s different for everybody.”
Warner, who called Brees’ remarkable Week 15 performance as a color analyst for Westwood One Radio, agreed he doesn’t see Brees “slowing down anytime soon.”
“I’ve only been out of the league for a decade, and I just think back to how different it is now and the way guys take care of themselves,” Warner said. “Obviously the rules play to the fact that you’re not getting as beat up. But, you know, they hire massage therapists and they hire chefs and they’re doing all this stuff in the offseason, which wasn’t even really a part of the league 10 years ago. ...
“So I think it’s gonna be a fascinating time to see some of these really good quarterbacks. What is that determining factor for a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees to go, ‘OK, it’s time?’”
Obviously it would be much easier for Brees to walk away satisfied if he wins at least one more Super Bowl.
But when asked if he could envision anything short of a second championship that would allow him to call it quits, Brees said, “I’m not even gonna let my mind go there. I’m just like, ‘Each week is the most important game of the season.’”
As long as Brees keeps treating each game like it could be his last, there's no end in sight.