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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, right, congratulates New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees after an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2020.

Jason Behnken/The Associated Press

When Drew Brees was run out of San Diego on a rail and dead-ended in Louisiana, he referred to it as a “calling.”

It was March, 2006. New Orleans was only a few months removed from Hurricane Katrina. The city was still a wreck. So was its NFL team, and so was Brees. He’d done the Chargers a favour by tearing up his shoulder in the final game of the previous season, making it easy for them to lowball him and hand the team over to Philip Rivers. He didn’t so much leave San Diego as get shot out of a cannon from there.

Brees – who likes to talk about the religious awakening he had as a teenager – said he saw in New Orleans a chance to rebuild, in every sense. Well, there was that and a US$60-million contract.

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Teams make bad moves all the time. Those are a given in any executive’s career. What GMs try to avoid are decisions that reset the historical timeline. No one wants to be the guy who traded Babe Ruth.

Giving up on Brees was a Babe Ruth moment in the NFL. In New Orleans, he became a totem of the city, turned around one of the worst franchises in sport, won a Super Bowl and set so many records that it now feels as though every scout who doubted him should be retroactively fired. Rivers, despite his own longevity, is still trying to convince people that shot-putting is the right throwing motion for football.

Brees isn’t iconic because he’s good. Lots of quarterbacks are good. Brees is iconic because he failed humiliatingly before he succeeded.

This lopsided “N” graph line – start out unknown, rise to widespread notice, fall like a stone, then rise much further than before – is the most difficult career trajectory to stick. The few who do get the benefit of the doubt from everyone, even people who can’t stand the team they play for or the things they say or do. That path bulletproofs you from scorn.

Two guys in the NFL leap to mind when you think of that type of player. They’ll play each other on Sunday.

The other guy, Tom Brady, didn’t fall quite as far as Brees. The people who rubbished him did so at the very beginning of his pro career. But he seems to feel it more keenly.

Brady isn’t Brees’s opposite. They’re both “visualize where you want to be, and you will be there” types. They both read the game like supercomputers. They’re both old as the hills.

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Brady is more Brees through a glass darkly. He enjoys his celebrity, maybe a bit too much. He isn’t known for his charitable works, unless they apply to himself. It’s a team sport, but Brady always seems alone out there. The guys he throws to aren’t his colleagues. They’re his interchangeable chess pieces.

If Brady has ever felt a “calling,” it was to win more, do more, last longer and prove the idiots wrong.

That is the one thing aside from football Brady and Brees have intensely in common – the arc of their careers is animated by revenge.

Revenge used to be everyone’s favourite reason to watch the game. Seeing two men at the peak of their craft in a sportsmanlike contest of physicality and wits animated by the desire for achievement sounds a lot like pleasure boating.

Show me two guys who hate each other’s guts determined to embarrass one another on live television. That sounds more promising from a bang-for-buck perspective.

But like fist-fighting and a winning mentality, revenge is out of fashion these days. You can call it a grudge match or “something to prove,” but revenge sounds too much like bashing in someone’s headlights with an aluminum bat.

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Sunday’s game between New Orleans and Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers – the first time the pair will meet in the postseason – isn’t a revenge match. Not against each other, at least.

In fact, the two seem uncommonly chummy.

“We were texting back and forth on Monday, chuckling at this whole scenario,” Brees said this week.

When you watch him play, it’s impossible to believe that Brees turned 42 on Friday. Then he says the word “chuckling” out loud, and you get it.

This is what sporting at middle age looks like. You still enjoy what you do, but work is just work. It’s not like you’re going to be surprised out there.

The anxiety of youth, that feeling that every moment could magnificently or disastrously affect the direction of every future one, has bled off.

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Perspective. It’s not exciting, but it does smooth off the sharpest edges of life.

If there’s a revenge to be had here, it’s on the system.

Brady and Brees are two examples of William Goldman’s maxim (about Hollywood, but it applies to every corner of the media industry): “Nobody knows anything.”

More effort, money and manpower goes into identifying the next NFL franchise quarterback than the next president of the United States. And they still get it wrong all the time.

Brees was abandoned by a team in mid-career. Brady didn’t get drafted until the sixth round. Twenty-five players were taken before Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, including a ton of running backs and linebackers – the most easily replaceable widgets of NFL positions.

You could make a decent argument that those three quarterbacks are the best in history to play the position. And just about no one saw them coming.

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Maybe that’s why Sunday’s game – and a possible Green Bay vs. New Orleans/Tampa the weekend after – does not feel as though it will decide anything in terms of legacies. It’s too late in either Brady’s or Brees’s career for either man to be defined by a win or a loss.

The way they talk about each other gives the whole thing a final-scene-of-Rocky-III feel – Rocky and Apollo Creed bouncing around the ring in a deserted gym, joshing each other about getting old.

For everyone else playing in the NFL, this weekend holds the promise of making a reputation. For Drew Brees and Tom Brady, it’s about celebrating the ones they already have, in part by dancing on the professional graves of all the people who couldn’t see the future.

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