Football and time are a fickle combination. George Blanda played until he was 48. Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson rode off into the sunset at 30. Not all bodies age at the same rate. They respond to stressors differently. They exist in different ecosystems that spin around the compartmentalized worlds at different speeds.
Drew Brees and Tom Brady matched wits on a cavernous, empty stage on Sunday night. Two aging quarterbacks diverged in a yellow wood and only one could continue traveling. It was not a shootout at the OK Corral. It was more a monument to being merely OK, often times resembling the last time dad is ever all-time quarterback in a Thanksgiving football game.
Eventually, Brady, who has waged a public battle versus time, began to look like a reasonable facsimile of the best to ever do it. He gutted out two touchdown passes and one of his trademark sneaks while flirting with several interceptions, but getting lucky enough to never pay the price.
Brees, on the other hand, could only muster a few death rattles. The requisite arm strength for deep balls was lost long before the pandemic, his fastball more Greg Maddux than Billy Wagner. His presence under center hurt New Orleans more than it helped. His performance was worse than the 19 completions for 134 yards and three picks would suggest, which is saying something.
The Saints' only offensive spark came from Jameis Winston on a trick play stolen from the Bears, although Winston Churchill may have been able to find a receiver that open. Taysom Hill, the newer model who lets Sean Payton try more freaky stuff, was sidelined with an injury and unable to step in and save the day, giving it that uncomfortable At Your Funeral feel.
Make no mistake. Brees, a future Hall of Famer, more than earned the right to run out of gas anywhere he damned pleased. Unfortunately for the Saints it was on the shoulder a few miles shy of Super Bowl town with no opportunity for a victory lap. Credit where credit's due: Brees rode his vehicle into the damn ground. No one has ever gone further to the left of the slash since Kramer and That Other Guy.
This is how it ended for him. Not with a roar but a whisper. With the acceptance that nothing gold can stay.
Viewers could see him processing it. They could feel him coming to grips that this is it. He fought hard to beat back the tide but it's coming more furiously now, cascading and eroding and forcing even the most secure to find new ground. Brees' final season in the NFL began with him first botching, then rectifying his response to protests for social justice. Its second act involved standing up to the President of the United States.
Like everyone else, he's had a year. And like everyone else eventually does, he's seeing his wildest professional dreams grow longer in the rearview mirror. Brees' future, of course, is brightly radiating with the promise of a cushy NBC job.
Still, saying goodbye to something you love and defines you is hard and only gets harder with the stubbornness of age. There was resignation but not defeat in his postgame words. An air of disappointment but not surprise because all good things must come to an end.
Brees will go down as a legend who literally left it all out on the field. Someone who expended all his reserves and hung up his cleats when he had nothing more to give. There was a tenderness to the moment he spent on the field hours after the final whistle with his family, visiting with Brady. And an instructiveness on display when one of Brees' sons hauled in a pass from the Bucs quarterback in the end zone.
The throw was picture perfect. Right where it needed to be. Because Brady has plenty left in the tank. Brees' has run bone dry.