The NFL is not an accommodating league for old men. Unless you’re a kicker, punter, or Tom Brady, your odds of playing into your late 30s are slim.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The league is littered with throwback performances from the gridiron’s elder citizens. Jerry Rice was a Pro Bowler in his 18th season in the league. Bruce Matthews earned three first-team All-Pro nods after his 37th birthday. Vinny Testaverde made 25 starts for three different teams after turning 40.
So, who was the best of the old men? Let’s take a look at the best seasons from NFL players age 35 or older in the post-merger era. We’ll break it down by position, starting with the Patriots’ ageless star.
QB: Tom Brady, Patriots, 2017 (40 years old)
Heading into 2017, the oldest players to ever win NFL MVP was a 37-year-old Peyton Manning. That fall, Brady took advantage of a weak field to best his AFC rival one more time.
Brady’s third MVP season saw him lead the league in passing yards and push New England to its 10th conference championship. The season wasn’t his best statistically — he’d been better over the course of 12 games in 2016 at age 39 — but the combination of a full 17-week slate, an AFC title, and a 32:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio were enough to outshine an injured Carson Wentz and tailback Todd Gurley.
Although that season doesn’t hold up to some of his more explosive years, it absolutely destroys all but one season when it comes to 40+ year-old QBs. In Brett Favre’s first season in Minnesota, he guided the Vikings to 12 wins, while throwing for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns, and cutting his interception rate to a league-low 1.3 percent. This was, statistically, the best year of his career. And since it ended like this:
He’s on backup duty behind Touchdown Tom.
WR: Jerry Rice, Raiders, 2002 (40 years old)
Charlie Joiner, Chargers, 1985 (38 years old)
Rice revived his career in Oakland following 16 seasons as a 49er, helping Rich Gannon earn MVP honors in the process. Any of Rice’s performances from ages 36 to 41 would qualify for inclusion on this list. He was an absolute machine.
Joiner nudged out solid performances from Jimmy Smith and James Lofton to join Rice in the lineup. The 19-year veteran peaked in his 30s while buoying Don Coryell’s famously pass-heavy offenses in San Diego. In 1985, he averaged nearly 16 yards per catch despite never gaining more than 39 yards on a single play — 59 receptions, 932 yards, and seven touchdowns.
Honorable mention: Tom Brady. (This is, somehow, totally serious.)
Numbers don’t lie.
Most receiving yards after age 40 in NFL history:
2,509: Jerry Rice
6: Tom Brady
0: everyone else except Brett Favre
-2: Brett Favre
— Cody Swartz (@cbswartz5) July 8, 2019
RB: John Riggins, Washington, 1984 (35 years old)
Marcus Allen, Chiefs, 1997 (37 years old)
Riggins was a workhorse in his age-35 season, running for 1,239 yards and 14 touchdowns. This was the second-most productive year of his career, and he did so while looking like your friend’s disappointed dad trying to figure out how CrossFit works:
Marcus Allen, who ran for more than 500 yards and 11 touchdowns in a reserve role at age 37, deserves a spot here, but he’s not the team’s primary back. Riggins earned nearly three times the carries Allen did in his breakout old guy year.
Tight end: Tony Gonzalez, the Falcon years, 2009-13 (33 to 37 years old)
Gonzalez left Kansas City and latched on with the Falcons, proving he had more to give even into his mid-30s. In five seasons in the NFC, he averaged 82 catches, 837 yards, and seven touchdowns per year. He finished his final season in the league with 83 catches and eight scores. Pretty good!
Offensive line: Bruce Matthews, OG, Titans, 1997-99 (37 to 39 years old)
Jackie Slater, OT, Rams, 1992 (38 years old)
Ray Brown, OG, 49ers, 2001 (39 years old)
Lomas Brown, OT, Giants, 2001 (38 years old)
Ray Donaldson, C, Cowboys, 1995-96 (37 and 38 years old)
Matthews was a regular All-Pro as he approached 40, making him an easy Hall of Fame choice. Slater wasn’t as dominant, but remained a starting-caliber edge protector well after most of his counterparts had retired.
Ray Brown’s first Pro Bowl nod came in his 16th season as a pro, which is bonkers. He’d make 48 starts in his 40s. Lomas Brown kept Kerry Collins upright long enough to become one of the most forgettable Super Bowl quarterbacks of all time. Donaldson wrapped up his career with back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in his final two seasons in the league.
DE: Reggie White, Packers, 1998 (37 years old)
Chris Doleman, 49ers, 1998 (37 years old)
‘98 was a big year for veteran pass rushers in the NFC. The venerable White and Doleman finished second and tied for third, respectively, in the NFL with 31 sacks between them. Both were prolific as their careers wore down; in their age 35 to 37 seasons, White totaled 35.5 sacks while Doleman had 73.5 sacks.
Defensive end has been a haven for old man strength in the NFL. Since the 1996 season, players aged 35 or older have racked up double-digit sacks from the edge 10 times. Bruce Smith was responsible for two of them, plus had a nine-sack season when he turned 39.
DT: Steve McMichael, Bears, 1992 (35 years old)
Merlin Olsen, Rams, 1975 (35 years old)
Before he set off on a stealth mission to destroy WCW and one of wrestling’s greatest stables from the inside, McMichael was a pace-setting interior lineman for the vaunted Bears defenses of the 1980s. He kept that pace up into the next decade, chewing up offensive linemen and recording 51 sacks in his final seven seasons in the league. His 1992 season was one of his finest — 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, 89 tackles, and an interception. His ‘91 and ‘93 campaigns were pretty great, too.
The less said about his wrestling career, however, the better. The Four Horsemen were never the same.
Olsen was well into his second decade of obliterating offenses by ‘75, which marked his 14th and final Pro Bowl bid. Modern stats weren’t yet being recorded at the height of Olsen’s powers, but it’s safe to assume he would have been among the leaders at his position even as his legendary career wound down. As someone who played with wisdom beyond his years as a rookie, Olsen was custom built to carry his legacy into his mid-30s.
Art Donovan fits that bill as well — but including him would have meant not reminding the world of Mongo’s inelegant wrestling career. Sorry, Colts fans.
LB: Kevin Greene, Panthers, 1999 (37 years old)
Terrell Suggs, Ravens, 2017 (35 years old)
London Fletcher, Washington, 2011 (36 years old)
Sam Mills, Panthers, 1996 (37 years old)
This gives us two pass rushers at the bookends of our second line and two tackling machines inside. Greene makes it a third WCW veteran on the roster (Reggie White had a match there once! Slamboree was wild).
Greene had a dozen sacks and 18 tackles for loss in his final season in the league. Suggs is still going. The Cardinals are hoping a change of scenery unlocks the 2017 Pro Bowl version of a player whose longevity should make him a Hall of Famer sometime around 2026.
Fletcher made four Pro Bowls during his long career, all of which came after he turned 34. He led the league with 166 tackles during his 2011 season, and that gets the nod here.
Mills was a first-team All-Pro the year he turned 37, racking up 122 tackles for a Panthers defense that ranked second in the NFL in what was the franchise’s second year of existence.
CB: Ken Riley, Bengals, 1983 (36 years old)
Charles Woodson, Packers, 2011 (35 years old)
Riley, a former college quarterback at Florida A&M, was one of the most overlooked players of his era. Despite recording 65 interceptions in 15 NFL seasons — all with the Bengals — he was never selected to a Pro Bowl. He did, however, earn All-Pro honors once: in his final season in the league at age 36.
At 35, Woodson had a league-high seven interceptions and was also a first-team All-Pro. This duo sneaks just ahead of Dick “Night Train” Lane, Mel Blount, and the eternal Darrell Green at a stacked position.
S: Rod Woodson, Raiders, 2002 (37 years old)
Brian Dawkins, Broncos, 2009 (36 years old)
Woodson played any role his team needed over the course of a 17-year career, moving from corner to safety in his 30s and earning All-Pro honors in his second-to-last season in the league. His presence as a defensive anchor helped push the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII — a lone oasis in what’s been a desert of misplaced expectations for Oakland’s last two decades.
Dawkins earned a pair of Pro Bowl nods in his three seasons after leaving Philadelphia. While the last was more of a legacy nod, his 2009 season stood in line with the rest of his Hall of Fame resume. His 116 tackles that fall were a career high.
K: Adam Vinatieri, Colts, 2014 (42 years old)
There’s no shortage of 40+ seasons from kickers in the NFL, but Vinatieri is the most prolific. He’s set to take the field as he approaches age 47 this year. And while it didn’t end with a series of game-winning kicks in the postseason, his 2014 campaign may have been the greatest in what should be a Hall of Fame career.
Vinatieri led the league in field goal percentage by converting 30 of his 31 attempts, a mark that included hitting all three of his kicks from 50+ yards. He’d double his misses in the postseason (5-of-7), but still helped push the Colts to the AFC title game.
Lechler had to punt the ball 92 dang times in his final season as a pro and still averaged 49 yards per attempt. Honorable mention goes to Sam Baker. In 1968 the Eagles’ specialist converted 19 field goals and averaged just about 41 yards per punt at 39 years old.