Eli Manning is called a lot of things these days. Many depend on his most-recent performance but Sunday will give him an opportunity, to be called something he’s rarely heard in years.
For the first time in almost two years, Manning will be the youngster in a matchup of starting quarterbacks as the Giants host the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees, at 39, is two years older than Manning. The last time Manning faced a quarterback older than himself was in 2016, when Josh McCown, now with the Jets, started for the Browns.
At a time when the league is enamored of young quarterbacks such as Pat Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, there are more than a handful of passers who are still finding success deep into their 30s (and up in New England, beyond). Sunday’s starters at MetLife Stadium have a combined age of 76 years.
“I don’t know if either of us would have ever predicted that,” Brees said when told about their combined 471 NFL games.
Being contemporaries allows the quarterbacks to appreciate what the other has had to do to remain in the game.
“Brees keeps doing it,” Manning said. “He’s accurate and still has great arm strength. He’s running around and he still looks young out there.”
Said Brees: “Obviously there is a mutual respect.”
“The job we do is a great one but a difficult one,” he added. “It requires a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of effort both mentally and physically and emotionally. I guess it’s a credit to all us guys for having that type of love and passion and commitment to the game.”
While it’s not an anomaly to have older quarterbacks on the field, it is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t long ago that quarterbacks were washed up by their early 30s and then, if they were lucky, bounced around the league as sage backups for a few more seasons.
Look at Eli’s dad, Archie Manning, who is also linked to Brees through the Saints franchise. His last full season as a starting quarterback for the New Orleans was 1981 when he was 32 years old. He retired three seasons later at 35 having started just 10 of the 18 games he played in from 1982-84.
of the 12 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who began their career in 1970 or later, only Brett Favre and Warren Moon – played into their 40s. Five of them retired at an age yo—nger than Eli Manning is now: Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw at 34, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly at 36, and Steve Young at 37. The line now forming to get into Canton, which is headed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Brees and could include Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers, might soon be filled with quarterbacks who played to 39 or older.
Most NFL players’ careers last a few years, but quarterbacks are now measuring their tenures in decades. So what in the name of Methuselah is allowing these most veteran of veterans to keep going?
“It’s just not extremely taxing on your body,” Manning said of the position. “You don’t necessarily have to be fast or be explosive or those types of things which you can lose at an older age.”
Manning also pointed to advances in nutrition, training, and even surgical procedures and rehabs which allow players to return quickly from injuries that were once career-threatening.
The on-field game has changed, too. Manning noting that the disappearance of two-a-days means half as many throws in training camp. “In games you can take a few hits,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, a late hit on a quarterback wasn’t called that often.”
Age has its advantages as well.
“Wisdom,” Giants safety Michael Thomas said of the best asset of experienced quarterbacks like the one on his team and the one he’ll face on Sunday. “There’s no fooling Drew Brees. He’s seen everything. Literally, he’s seen everything… There is nothing you can do to confuse him.”
“There’s no substitute for experience, especially when you’re well-performing guys like they are,” Pat Shurmur said. “I think in this game at certain positions, as long as your legs and your arms stay good, you’ve got a chance to continue to play. I think that’s what you’re seeing from both Eli and Drew.”
Manning and Brees have known each other since the 1990s. They first met at a Colts playoff game when Manning was in high school watching his older brother Peyton play in the NFL and Brees was a young quarterback at nearby Purdue who stopped by the event. Little did they know then as teenagers that they would be part of the first generation of NFL quarterbacks that are almost expected to play long into their thirties. They’re helping set the age bar for quarterbacks to come, and it’s being noticed.
Kyle Lauletta, the Giants’ 22-year-old rookie third-string quarterback, said he’s looking forward to watching a pair of players on Sunday who are almost old enough to be his father, not only because they could both one day be Hall of Famers, but because they speak to the longevity that his own career could enjoy.
“Especially at the quarterback position where you’re not getting beat up as much as some of these other guys you can have a longer career,” Lauletta said. “Eli feels like he can play into his 40s and hopefully I can play for many, many years. I don’t see age ever being an issue.”
Nor does Brees, who said he feels like he could play until he is 45 (though he doubts he will). He looks around and sees others who came into the NFL in his era – he in 2001, Tom Brady in 2000, Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers in 2004, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers in 2005 – plugging away and he takes pride in it.
“You take that five-year span and you have a lot of us who are still playing,” he said proudly. “And still having fun doing it.”
The 19 quarterbacks who competed at age 40 or beyond, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Age Player, team
48 George Blanda, 1975 Raiders (pictured)
44 Steve DeBerg, 1998 Falcons
Warren Moon, 2000 Chiefs
Vinny Testaverde, 2007 Panthers
43 Doug Flutie, 2005 Patriots
42 Earl Morrall, 1976 Dolphins
41 Tom Brady, Patriots
Mark Brunell, 2011 Jets
Brett Favre, 2010 Vikings
40 Charlie Conerly, Len Dawson, Vince Evans, Joe Ferguson, Jim Hart, Matt Hasselbeck, Brad Johnson, Sonny Jurgensen, Dave Krieg, Johnny Unitas. (Wade Wilson, was on 1999 Raiders' active roster but did not play.)