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40 is the new 35 when it comes to NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees

Roughing the passer rules aside, NFL signal callers have taken their fitness and diet regimens to new heights as they seek to elongate their professional careers.

Divisional Round - Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Back in the day, it was less common for quarterbacks to excel past their mid 30’s. Sure, there was Warren Moon, Vinny Testaverde, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, and John Elway. But that short list is dwarfed by a painfully longer one filled with Hall of Fame quarterbacks who seemed to crap out well short the 40 year marker.

Even these all time greats experienced precipitous drop offs in their mid to late 30’s. For Roger Staubach, Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton, it came at 37. For Bart Starr, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts, 36. For Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Bob Griese, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, 35. For Otto Graham, Joe Namath, and Troy Aikman, 34.

This makes it all the more amazing that so many older quarterbacks are still playing at an elite level in today’s NFL. There might very well be five to seven future Hall of Famers starting in the league right now. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are officially in their 40’s. Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are both 36. Aaron Rodgers is 34 and Matt Ryan is 33; and both signed extensions in the past couple years at times in their careers when former quarterbacks usually retired.

It’s true, quarterbacks are more protected by the rules of the NFL than ever before, and this certainly has played a part in their new found longevity. In 1978, the league restricted contact between defensive backs and receivers to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. This resulted in a dramatic increase in passing attempts per game, which in turn suddenly made the quarterback position more valuable.

Since 1993, quarterbacks could simply escape the pocket and throw a pass out of bounds without incurring an intentional grounding penalty. This made it harder for pass rushers to get to them before they got rid of the ball, therefore avoiding a sack or quarterback hit.

Roughing the passer penalties have become more and more common as the definition has broadened to include late hits, forcible hits below the knee, hitting the helmet, and landing on the quarterback with one’s own body weight.

Last year, former Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was flagged twice for roughing the passer while making what seemed to be perfectly executed sacks. Ironically, it was probably a hit on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers the previous season that may have led to the rule change that cost the Packers two victories a season later.

One would think that with these modern day quarterbacks dropping back more times throughout a game than ever before, their careers would be shorter, not longer. That’s why I think there’s more to it than the implementation of more rules that inherently protect the quarterback.

Because they played before GMO’s and modern day fast food chains, many old school players of the past had access to better food. But that doesn’t mean they took full advantage of their timely access to healthier lives. Joe Namath smoked cigarettes on the sidelines for god’s sake.

I doubt they were paying attention to the pH of their foods like Tom Brady or paying upwards of $200K a year like James Harrison did on therapy treatments like massage and acupuncture. The modern day athlete has to be almost obsessive in their quest for success. Talent alone won’t cut it anymore if you want to stick around in today’s NFL.

Extremely strict diets, fitness, and recovery programs have taken the place of binge eating like Babe Ruth, snorting cocaine like Diego Maradona, and binge drinking like Lawrence Taylor. The two oldest current quarterbacks in the NFL also happen to keep two of the strictest diet and fitness regimens across all sports.

Drew Brees has been working with Todd Durkin in San Diego, CA since his days with the Chargers. Brees loves working with Durkin every offseason. “Whenever I come back for the summertime to get in the best shape of my life for training camp, he’s always got something new or a few new things that make me feel like we’re way ahead of everybody else.”

What’s interesting to me, however, is that even though Brees isn’t Durkin’s biggest, fastest, or most agile athlete, he may have benefited the most simply because he’s willing to work harder than everyone else. And that’s saying a lot considering Durkin’s vast client list also includes Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, Darren Sproles, LaDainian Tomlinson, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Brandon Cooks, Reggie Bush, Charles Tillman, Zach Ertz, John Brown, Dontrelle Inman, Malcom Floyd, Ryan Griffin, Chase Daniel, Sean Canfield, Josh Freeman, and my fellow Saint Ignatius College Prep alumnus, Igor Olshansky.

Drew Brees, first and foremost, is a special person. I will probably not have the opportunity to work with a guy like that in the next 20 years. His concentration and focus are amazing, and he works extremely hard. He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but he’s going to beat you with his athleticism, his smarts and because he’s such a competitor. I don’t care what it is, the dude wants to win at anything. He’s always restless and never satisfied,” said Durkin.

Brees is absolutely methodical in his training and game preparation. “I know where I’m going to be at a specific time,” he says. “I know what I’m going to be doing; I know what needs to be accomplished for me to feel confident and go out there and play at the highest level.”

His focus has shifted from the archaic meathead approach to training he learned in college at Purdue to a more functional and efficient approach. “I think maybe those [exercises] served the purpose at the time.” Drew says. “But now I’ve wised up to the things that I need to do in a position-specific and functional fitness kind of way to benefit me as a quarterback.”

If you have 30 minutes to kill, watch this video of Brees’ workouts with Durkin.

I’ve been a fitness trainer and instructor for 12 years and I’m telling you, Durkin is the real deal. I love his approach to fitness. I stopped lifting heavy weights years ago and have focused more on agility ladder work, TRX training, yoga, and generally maximizing my strength and endurance gains while also minimizing sheering forces on my joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Tom Brady takes his fitness protocol in an even more holistic, and dare I say, Eastern direction. He and his trainer/business partner Alex Guerrero founded the TB12 training facility next to Gillette Stadium in 2013. Guerrero, though highly controversial, isn’t a total quack in my opinion.

Of course claiming his supplements could cure multiple sclerosis, AIDS, concussions, and other diseases with no shred of testing or evidence based proof was incredibly disingenuous and downright dangerous. Settling with multiple investors out of court for defrauding them is no better either.

But I have to hand it to him: he has kept Tom Brady in phenomenal shape to survive and thrive in the NFL past the age of 40. Guerrero earned a Masters Degree in traditional Chinese medicine from a school in LA that closed after losing its’ accreditation. He is not a physical therapist and does not hold any Western degrees that would qualify him to do a lot of the work he does with his clients.

Yet, Guerrero is highly respected and retained by many professional athletes including Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Willie McGinest, Jimmy Garoppolo, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Chris Hogan. Instead of focusing on lifting huge weights and tearing muscle fibers, Guerrero prescribes more body weight moves and exercises with resistance bands that are designed to increase the muscles’ “pliability.”

Brady often sees Guerrero twice daily and receives intensely specific massages in which he tenses the muscles while Guerrero massages them. The goal is to lengthen the muscles and increase their flexibility so that Brady can withstand the weekly car crash that is an NFL football game.

The other main focus is to reduce inflammation in the body by maintaining a strict diet. Brady does not eat white flour, white sugar, MSG, iodized salt, coffee, caffeine, alcohol, fungus, dairy, nightshade vegetables and most types of fruit. This diet may sound strange, but it’s most likely derived from the Ayurvedic tradition which is over 5,000 years old and trusted throughout Asia as much as we trust Western medicine.

The part where Brady and Guerrero lose me is by making sweeping statements like everyone should drink 25 glasses of water a day, or eat this exact diet, or that everyone needs to consume TB12 branded electrolytes or wear TB12 branded muscle recovery pajamas.

I’m not 6’4” and 230lbs; I’m 5’6” and 130lbs, so I don’t need more than 65 ounces of water a day, unless Tom wants me to get hyponatremia and die of brain damage. Don’t just replicate a professional athlete’s diet and fitness regimen. These have been specially tailored to them. If you work for Google and sit at a desk for eight hours a day, you probably shouldn’t eat and drink exactly what Tom Brady does.

It’s okay to be skeptical too. Brees isn’t much more trust-worthy with his shameful peddling of Advocare products. It’s important to rely on evidence-based research conducted by independent bodies without a financial stake in the products they test. Even more important, think for yourself and do your own research before listening to athletes that have a financial stake in the health philosophies they are sharing with the public.

If you aren’t hip to eating according to your Ayurvedic dosha (My dosha is roughly 70% Pitta, 20% Vata, 10% Kapha) like Brady seems to, you can go the Western route and still learn something about how to function at a higher level, no matter what your lifestyle is. Drew and Brittney Brees got food sensitivity blood tests done back in 2004. That’s when Brees found he had significant sensitivities to gluten, dairy, and certain nuts.

“As you can imagine, I was shocked because I was consuming most of these things every day. And just to think how long I’ve had these sensitivities and had continued to feed them. Guys coming in fresh out of college are used to going to the training table and eating and drinking whatever they’re given.”

“In many cases, I see myself as a veteran player – pulling those young guys aside and, as part of teaching young players how to be a pro, talking to them about their diet, their sleep habits and their recovery. They’ll start to ask questions like, ‘Hey Drew, what do you do?’ That’s when I explain to them that I use coconut milk and almond milk products.”

It’s not just Brees’ direct teammates like Reggie Bush, Sean Canfield, Chase Daniel, Brandin Cooks, and Ryan Griffin who have followed his lead when it comes to diet and fitness. “It took the fourth or fifth time hearing, ‘You need to do this,’ and then reading about Drew Brees and Tom Brady and others who are your peers doing it,” Kirk Cousins said. “I realized, ‘If I want to hang with these guys, then it’s time to stop playing around.’”

18 of the 32 quarterbacks starting in the NFL are over 30 years old, and by September that list will grow to 21 with the 30th birthdays of Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor, and Andrew Luck. Even though five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round last year, there’s a good chance less than a third of the starting quarterbacks in the league will be younger than 30 years old.

40 might be the new 35, and it’s not just because of some changes in the rules. Players are spending highly on optimizing their health and performance through a multitude of practices both new and incredibly old. Cousins is right, it’s time to stop playing around.