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NFL Players Over 40: Return or Retire?

The oldest players in the NFL are always asked some version of the same question after their season ends. “Will you consider retirement, or return next year?”

TGH has decided to save other reporters the trouble and answer that question for some of the oldest players in the league.

**Note: This article was published after Tom Brady decided to return to the NFL in 2020.**

Matt Bryant

Placekicker Matt Bryant has been in the NFL since 2002. The 18-year veteran, began his career with the New York Giants, then had brief stints in Indianapolis and Miami. After four years in Tampa Bay, he started his 11-year career as an Atlanta Falcon.

In Atlanta he converted 87.5 percent of his field goals and 99 percent of his extra point attempts. Bryant became the third-oldest player to ever play in a Super Bowl, and earned his only Pro Bowl selection that year (2016).

Atlanta cut Bryant in October of 2019, the second year in a row they released him. This was symptomatic of NFL teams’ increasingly short leash on kickers. During this last seven game stint he missed five field goals and one extra point.

A kicker is a position on which it is hard to make a definitive statement. Proven, veteran kickers are valuable, but are quick to be dismissed. Considering his age and the aforementioned short leash, however, the interest in him will be low.

Conclusion: Retire

Josh McCown

The definition of journeyman in the NFL, McCown never really found a home as a starter. A career backup, he had two real shots at being a starter. Once in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns, and in 2017 with the New York Jets.

McCown started eight games with the Browns, posting a 1-7 record with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. During his 13-game starting campaign with the Jets in 2017, he had 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, earning a 5-8 record.

McCown throws a pass during his first playoff appearance in 2019. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

He has had a regular season roster spot on nine different NFL teams. He also served on the practice squad for two more, and started for the UFL’s Hartford Colonials in 2010. His most recent appearance was in the 2019 Wild Card game with the Philadelphia Eagles. This marked his first ever appearance in the postseason, despite being a 17-year veteran. The Eagles and McCown would go on to lose that game 17-9.

Officially the oldest quarterback to make his postseason debut, McCown is now an unrestricted free agent. He had originally retired prior to the 2019 season to pursue a career as an NFL analyst, but signed with the Eagles for the chance to win a Super Bowl.

Whether he should return or retire is entirely dependent on how much he does want that Super Bowl ring. Gut feelings, however, suggest there is not much need for a 41-year-old quarterback with one game’s worth of playoff experience on a Super Bowl-ready roster. It may be time for him to hang it up.

Conclusion: Retire

Drew Brees

New Orleans has experienced three heartbreaking playoff losses in a row. In each of the last three postseasons, the Saints have lost on the last play.

The two people on the team this probably pains least are head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. They can go home, look at their Super Bowl 44 championship rings and probably feel a little bit better about the losses. Furthermore, Brees has a Super Bowl MVP trophy of which to feel proud.

Brees’ bona fides speak for themselves. Super Bowl champion, most career passing yards, most career passing touchdowns (as of January 2020), highest career completion percentage, most consecutive games with a touchdown pass, most 5,000 yard seasons, and the list goes on.

He is clearly a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, and will always be in the conversation as one of the best to ever play the position. It seems as if he does not have a lot left to prove.

The problem here is, they have been so close to another Super Bowl appearance so many times. In 2018, the NFC Championship was in their grasp before it slipped away against the Los Angeles Rams. The roster is not getting any worse in 2020, which makes it really hard to step away.

Maybe the fact that he has nothing left to prove is the perfect reason to come back. Any NFL fan knows he is not putting his legacy in jeopardy, barring some sort of bizarre collapse and an 0-16 season. If the roster and coaching staff were going to be mediocre next year, he should. Considering their talent on the offense, he should give it another shot, regardless of the money.

Conclusion: Return

Adam Vinatieri

The oldest player in the NFL, Adam Vinatieri, is another sure-fire Hall of Fame inductee. He is the all time leading scorer in NFL history, with the most field goals made and most combined playoff and regular season games played. He has four Super Bowl rings, and has kicked two Super Bowl-winning field goals.

The NFL’s oldest player may want to hang it up after his season-ending injury. (Photo by Heather Bremer/CNHI Sports Indiana)

Despite his incredible pedigree, age has seemingly finally caught up with him. The (now) 47-year-old’s 2019 season was a bit of a roller coaster. He made 17 of 25 field goals (only 68 percent) and missed four extra points.

Vinatieri’s season ended when the Indianapolis Colts placed him on IR, as he underwent knee surgery. That would not be the kiss of death for a younger kicker, but for an almost 50-year-old player, it very well could be. He is officially an unrestricted free agent once the league season ends, and his only hope of being signed is either by loyalty by the Colts, or the veteran experience under his belt.

That being said, his misses and his inconsistency does not inspire confidence. Those of us who wanted to see an NFL player in his fifties may be disappointed.

Conclusion: Retire

Honorable Mention: Eli Manning

Eli Manning turned 39 on January 3, 2020, meaning he will be that age for the entirety of the 2020 season (barring a playoff run). Thus, this entry has to be counted as an honorable mention.

Manning started in two games at the beginning of the 2019 season before being replaced by rookie Daniel Jones. After Jones suffered an ankle sprain, Manning got two more shots to win for the Giants. One start saw him suffer an overtime loss in Philadelphia, the other was a win against the Dolphins in what may be his final Giants home game.

As of that last game, Manning’s record is 117-117. He has two Super Bowl rings, and some records under his belt that will no doubt get Hall of Fame voters arguing once he ends his career. He has done enough in the NFL to warrant a retirement, especially considering his expiring contract in New York.

Manning has also gone on record saying he, “doubts” he would return to the NFL in a backup role. So, which teams would have any interest in bringing him into their fold as a full-time starter? The answer is either, “not many,” or “none”.

The thing is, however, for a quarterback like Eli Manning, who just wants to play, and who some think still has something to prove, it is worth testing the waters at the very least. He should feel out the market before making a decision, but never say never.

Conclusion: Return

Featured Image courtesy of Butch Dill/Associated Press

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