Between likes of Tom Brady and Charles Woodson, 40 looks the new 30 in the NFL

Charles Woodson is only the second defensive back to play age 39 or older, and looks fantastic, while Tom Brady is racking up eye-popping numbers as age is proving nothing but a number for NFL veterans this year.

Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson celebrates an interception against the Denver Broncos last Sunday in the NFL. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP / October 11, 2015
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Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson ran nearly halfway across the field, leaped high into the air and came down with his fourth interception of the season to tie for the league lead.

“Now that felt good,” Woodson said. “That felt like a young Charles there.”

The 39-year-old Woodson is far from the only aging player who has turned back the clock in the NFL this season.

There’s fellow 1998 draftee Matt Hasselbeck, who came off the bench to win two games that helped save the Indianapolis Colts’ season; quarterbacks Tom Brady and Carson Palmer, who seem be improving with age; and wide receivers like Steve Smith Sr and Larry Fitzgerald who still can get open despite maybe losing a step.

Add in 42-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri and pass rushers DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and James Harrison and there are plenty of players proving that football is not solely a young man’s game.

“When I left the Cowboys, people sort of put you in the wash a little bit, saying you have a couple of more years,” said Ware, adding he felt like he’d felt just fine despite the years adding up.

Of all the old guys succeeding this year, few have been more impressive than Woodson, who joined Darrell Green as the only defensive backs since at least 1960 to play after turning 39.

Woodson sealed a Week 3 win at the Cleveland Browns with an interception, set up a go-ahead score with a pick at the Chicago Bears the next week, and then topped that by intercepting fellow 1998 draftee Peyton Manning twice in a loss last week. He became the oldest player ever with multiple interceptions in a game.

He’s done all of that at a physically demanding position despite dislocating his shoulder in the season opener.

“Unbelievable what he’s doing,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “Just to be playing alone at 39 years old is incredible. But to be such a productive player and making big plays in the game, clearly he’s banged up, but he’s fighting through the pain.”

The ability to play through pain is just one of the common traits for players who thrive after the age of 35. There also is the work ethic, detailed preparation and smarts that allow players to make up for any diminished athletic ability with their minds.

Players are also training harder and smarter than they ever did in the past with help from team and personal strength coaches and trainers.

“I think football is something I love to do, and I want to do it for a long time,” Brady said. “So you’ve got to take a different approach than what’s been taken in the past, or else you’ll probably get the same results as everybody else.”

The 38-year-old Brady’s results have been off the charts through four games this season. He has thrown for 346.8 yards per game, which would break Manning’s record set as a 37-year-old two years ago.

Brady also has the highest yards per attempt (8.7), completion percentage (72.5 per cent) and passer rating (121.5) in a career that has already made him one of the game’s best quarterbacks ever.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” New England Patriots teammate Julian Edelman said. “If you see how he prepares weekly, how he prepares in the off-season, it doesn’t surprise you. The man lives for football and his family, and that’s what he does.”

Brady has some company among aging quarterbacks.

Seven other quarterbacks age 35 or older have started games this season. Hasselbeck stepped in for the injured Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Josh McCown set a Cleveland franchise record by throwing for 457 yards in a win last week against the Baltimore Raves, and Manning has the Denver Broncos off to a 5-0 start even though he has struggled – at least for a Manning, that is.

Few have been as impressive as Palmer, who at age 35 and coming off his second major knee operation is tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with 13. Palmer is on pace for career highs in yards per attempt (8.9) and passer rating (114).

The Arizona Cardinals have plenty old-timers from a coaching staff led by 63-year-old Bruce Arians and assistants Tom Moore (76) and Tom Pratt (80). Running back Chris Johnson, 30, has his highest yards per carry since his 2,000-yard season in 2009, and 32-year-old Fitzgerald has thrived in his move to the slot to catch a league-leading six TD passes after having just two last season.

“It takes the right type of guy to play well at that age,” Palmer said. “It’s got to be somebody that’s taken care of themselves. It’s got to be somebody that has great respect for the game and respect for themselves. You know I just think they (the Cardinals) have done a good job of finding the right guys, the guys who can still play.”

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