"I'm blessed to play the game of football. I've been playing it in the NFL for going on 17 years now, and I feel like I've got some good years left. I'd like for them to be my best years. I feel like I'm at the point now where I certainly have all the physical skills—I don't feel like that's diminished at all. Yet I have all this wealth of experience I've gained throughout my career. I feel like this is the culmination of all those things—it makes it the perfect time to go out and try to win another one."
That's what Drew Brees told me on a sun-drenched football field in southern California, just moments after he'd wrapped up one of his final workouts of the off-season. Brees is 38 years old and the New Orleans Saints are coming off three consecutive 7-9 seasons, but there was conviction in his voice. He believes he can raise another Lombardi Trophy, and his rigorous work ethic and ability to elevate the play of everyone around him gives that belief substance.
"He's one of the fiercest competitors I know. It's the same competitive fire today as it was 15 years ago," says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 and Brees' personal trainer since 2003. "He's got that ability to raise everyone else's game. Whether it's in the weight room, during a field workout, with the Saints—he has a very unique ability to get the best out of everybody." Brees' ability to maximize the talents of those around him was on full display during that day's workout.
After a thorough warm-up and a number of agility drills, the players assemble for a throwing session. Participants include a number of New Orleans Saints, such as wide receiver Michael Thomas, along with NFL vets Darren Sproles and Golden Tate.
Brees barks out instructions to his receivers, telling them to adjust their splits. As he takes each snap, a clock begins to tick inside his head, simulating an impending pass rush. The 6-foot quarterback visualizes throwing lanes appearing as imaginary behemoths clash around him. His eyes calculatedly scan the defensive backfield, looking off a fictitious safety. He uncorks a dart that hits Thomas, who's running a drag route, in stride.
"If you're not practicing the way you're going to play, it's a waste of time. In fact, I think it's counterproductive," Brees says. "You're visualizing the defense, visualizing a look, visualizing the clock in your head. You play the game in your head, so when the real game comes around, you've already been there. You've already done it."
In the middle of this imaginary game, Brees is also thinking about keeping his back leg engaged through his throwing motion. It's been a point of emphasis for him throughout the offseason, as it enhances stability and allows him to sling the ball with more zip and precision. Durkin roars his approval after a particularly pretty three-step drop and delivery. The trainer's just as invested in Brees' improvement as the quarterback himself. "I was honing in on the feet and making sure his legs were coming through the ball and not lifting that back leg up. If we're doing that, we're losing power," Durkin says.
On one of the final throws of the session, Brees hurls a bomb to a streaking Thomas. It looks to be overthrown, but Thomas stretches out and snares it, lunging into the end zone as he secures the catch. Thomas, the 6-foot-3 receiver who totaled 1,137 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie last season, is clearly one of the most talented wideouts Brees has ever had at his disposal. But Brees doesn't need to be surrounded by high draft picks such as Thomas to be successful—he's always managed to put up prolific numbers no matter who fills out his supporting cast. When asked about his ability to get the best out of any receiver who comes into his offense, Brees emphasizes there's really no secret other than repetition.
"It's time on task. It's the reason we have route sessions like this prior to training camp. We [use] every little bit of extra time," Brees says. "That builds trust, builds confidence." Speaking of trust, there are few people on Earth that Brees trusts like Todd Durkin. After 15 years together, the typical athlete-trainer relationship has been elevated into something more meaningful. You can hear it in Brees' voice when he speaks about their connection.
"I always know I'm going to be challenged with Todd. Not only physically, but mentally, psychologically, spiritually. He's a great mentor for me and he has been for a long time. I credit to him so much of my longevity, my continued passion and perseverance through training and preparation and making it through seasons and achieving a high level of success," Brees says. "I know every offseason, he's going to have some things for me that are ahead of the curve and are going to help give me an edge each and every year."
Brees' offseason is broken into phases. Before phase one, there's a period of rest, recovery and revitalization. Brees doesn't touch a weight for several weeks, but he's not the type to melt into the couch and binge-watch Netflix. "I think your body needs a break from that pounding you take when you're strength training, lifting weights. So I take a break and I really just like to do active, athletic things. I like to get on the water and do stand-up paddle board, I like to go hiking, I like to go biking," Brees says. "I don't touch a weight for a period of time, but I always want to be sweating, I always want to be in shape. That's kinda part of my edge."
As the calendar turns to Spring, Brees begins to move into phase one. Durkin looks at this phase as a chance to solidify Brees' foundation. "I see [it] as foundational work. Lots of joint integrity [work], get the body moving, start to get re-acclimated to the tempo and the pace again to develop that great metabolic and strength base," Durkin says. This "joint integrity" work largely focuses on strengthening small stabilizing muscles in different areas of the body.
For Brees, no area is more crucial than his right shoulder. in 2005, he suffered a complete 360-degree tear of his right labrum and a partial tear in his right rotator cuff. Brees says it the toughest thing he's overcome in his career, as some experts told him he'd never play football again. The esteemed Dr. James Andrews surgically repaired Brees' shoulder, and the New Orleans Saints signed him to a six-year, $60 million contract. Brees has since started 117 of the team's last 119 regular-season games. Since 2006, he's attempted 6,949 passes—far and away the most of any NFL quarterback during that span. Andrews calls it the most remarkable comeback he's ever been involved with.
Phase two occurs just prior to OTAs, and it has Brees crank up the intensity to build strength and power. Core training is essential for any athlete, but for a rotational athlete like Brees, it's especially critical. "[Core training] is one of our keys to success. I believe about 65% of power is generated from the trunk," Durkin says. "If we lose [energy] through our core, we're not going to be able to maximize velocity or performance." As Brees is now the second-oldest starting quarterback in the NFL, Durkin has worked to adjust his training volume accordingly. While every workout is a challenge, the amount of reps they include varies from session to session. "The volume is really important at this point in his career as he's moving towards 40 years of age. I don't want to put the same volume on him every time we work," Durkin says. "Sometimes [the workout is only] 45 to 60 minutes long. But it's quality work, it's hard work."
Durkin knows that one way to help Brees' beat father time is to keep his mind and body nimble by consistently altering his training. Brees rarely performs the same workout twice. "What can I do to challenge [Brees] so he doesn't get mentally fatigued or in a rut of doing the same thing? Sometimes, it's little things. Instead of Step-Ups, we're doing Step-Downs. Instead of double-leg plyometrics, it's single-leg plyometrics. We're mixing up our routines and how we couple our sets," Durkin says. "I believe that keeps him really sharp and focused."
Phase three is the final phase of Brees' off-season, and the one that most prepares him for the physical slog of an NFL season. By December, no player will be 100%. But the level of fitness and functionality Brees is able to achieve heading into training camp could be the difference between him being at 65 percent or 85 percent during the most pivotal points of the NFL calendar.
Mandatory conditioning tests prior to training camp are a way for coaching staffs to gauge who's been working all off-season and who hasn't. Brees' domination of the team's conditioning test this year tells you everything you need to know about how well prepared he is. The test consisted of an exhausting gamut of Sled Pushes, Med Ball Slams, Rows and Push-Ups. Saints linebacker Craig Robertson said Brees "killed everybody" in the test despite being three full years older than any other player on the Saints' roster.
Brees has said he believes he can play until he's 45 and beyond. He's just 5,830 passing yards away from becoming the all-time leader in NFL history, yet his body and mind are as adept as ever. His training with Durkin is impeccable. His diet is meticulous and perfectly tuned to his body. His preparation and ability to dissect a defense is, aside from perhaps Tom Brady, unrivaled. His competitive fire still burns white hot. In a league where few quarterbacks achieve success and even fewer are able to maintain it, Brees has been elite for over a decade.
Now, it's time for his second act.
Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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