Let’s face it. We all know football is an unforgiving sport. On the field, it’s been described as 'a car wreck every week'. Off the field, it’s not much better. Owners can be even more ruthless than the physical punishment a player takes on the field. NFL contracts are flimsy at best. With minimal guaranteed money, and the fear of being cut at any time during the season, it’s a wonder why these guys do what they do. The average length of an NFL player’s career is around four years, six if he makes his team’s opening day roster as a rookie. Despite this, there are many players who play much longer than average, and at an astonishingly high level. With that in mind, here are the top five football players of the modern era who have defied convention to continually play at an exceptional level well past their expected physical prime.
Agree or disagree, these are the five football players of the modern era, either retired or still active, that I feel have had the biggest impact on their teams by playing at an exceptionally high level well into their thirties.
5 Brett Favre
This one isn’t an easy one. No question, there are a few seasons I’m sure Favre wishes he could erase from his career, particularly in his mid to late thirties. If he could, the case for him being fifth on this list would be stronger. Furthermore, Favre has always been as much a polarizing quarterback as he has been a polarizing personality. Despite all this, Brett Favre will be remembered as one of the greatest QB’s ever. Sure, most of the positive things he’ll be remembered for on the field will be as a Green Bay Packer. Most of what he will be remembered for off the field will be the constant ‘should I stay or should I go’ retirement debate and the New York Jets texting scandal. However, lets not undermine the fact that Brett Favre led the 2009 Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship game, and came within a crushing overtime loss to advancing to the Super Bowl. That season, Favre threw 4,202 yards, 33 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions, and his Quarterback Rating was 107.2, by far the best of his career. Did I mention he did all this at 40?! Favre turned 40 a month into the 2009 season and then proceeded to have the best statistical year of his career, culminating in a birth in the NFC Championship Game. For that season alone, Brett Favre has earned a number five spot on this list.
4 Tom Brady
If Tom Brady were higher on this list, it’d be pure bias. The fact that he is on this list however, is based on performance. Brady will be 37 when the 2014 season starts, putting him squarely in the Elway, Manning age group of highly effective quarterbacks. Last off-season, the New England Patriots lost their entire core of Wide Receivers and Tight Ends either to free agency (Wes Welker), injury (Rob Gronkowski), or potentially life in prison (Aaron Hernandez). The start of the season saw Brady throwing to rookies and third string players. The Patriots still finished 12-4 and Brady still threw 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns, all at the age of 36. Cumulatively, Brady has won 2 AFC Offensive Player of the Year Awards and 1 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award in this thirties. Though he hasn’t won a Super Bowl since turning 30, he’s still been there. His entire career can’t be questioned, and if he can maintain his high level of play for another two or three seasons like the other quarterbacks on this list, there’s no doubt Tom Brady will be adding to his trophy collection.
3 Ray Lewis
Quarterbacks are easy to write about, easy to add to ‘best ever’ lists. Their careers tend to last longer because they get hit less. When they post numbers like Elway and Manning, they tend to steal the spotlight far more often than other players on an NFL team. Linebackers are a different story. No one doubts the utmost importance of an NFL Linebacker, but how often is he the most famous, recognized player on the team? That’s what made Ray Lewis so special. He was the leader of the Baltimore Ravens. He was the engine that powered the machine. Lewis left it all on the field. Every. Single. Down. Even the personal and legal issues Lewis had earlier in his career did nothing to diminish his endearment to Ravens fans. His signature home field entrance dance has become iconic. On the field; 2 Super Bowl championships, Super Bowl XXXV MVP, 13 Pro Bowl selections, 3 AFC Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and a spot on the NFL All-Decade Team. There’s never been a better three-down back in the game. Ever. If there were any doubt, Lewis crushed it in his final season at 36 years old. After missing the majority of the season with a torn triceps, Lewis returned for the Ravens’ Super Bowl run and proceeded to break the record for most post-season tackles with 51. He promptly retired as a champion after the Ravens' Super Bowl victory.
2 Peyton Manning
I’d love to not include Mr. Manning on this list. Personal bias. I’m a Patriots fan, so of course, the Manning vs. Brady debate is something I’m invested in. However, if the current Denver Broncos quarterback were not second on this list, I’d be a cheerleader, not a sports writer.
What is there to say about Peyton Manning? Much can be said of Peyton’s playoff record, and his failure to win when it really matters, but lets not forget, he still holds a Super Bowl title and an MVP to go along with it. Beyond that, his statistics speak for themselves. Peyton Manning holds virtually every single NFL record a quarterback can possess. He also broke the most passing yards in a season, with 5,477, and the most touchdowns in a season, with 55, at the tender age of 37. Keep in mind that he broke these records two years after missing an entire season due to a career-threatening neck injury. Doctors went so far as to tell him in the late summer of 2011 that he needed spinal fusion surgery and that at his age they could not guarantee his return to the NFL. Well, recover and return he did, and though his latest Super Bowl loss to Seattle this season may impact his long-term legacy slightly, there is no quarterback in the game, at ANY age, playing at the level Manning is. He very well may be the best.
1 John Elway
Some readers may argue the top pick on this list, but make no mistake, there is no argument. Retired Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway is the best player ever to play into his later thirties. He was also the most successful at an advanced age. His numbers were considerable from the beginning of his career and remained so until his retirement. Elway is regarded as one of the greatest players in NFL history, and rightfully so; 9 Pro Bowl selections, 5 AFC Championships, and an NFL MVP Award. For all of these achievements however, Elway will always be remembered as the guy who led his team to two consecutive Super Bowl wins at ages 37 and 38. After three failed attempts at a Super Bowl earlier in his career, John Elway saved his best for last, first winning Super Bowl XXXII and then a year later Super Bowl XXXIII, in which he was named the game’s MVP. He retired after the 1998 season a true champion, at the age of 38. There is no debate; John Elway is the best player to play football at an incredibly high level well into his thirties.