Thirtysomethings still producing at a high level

Photo Cardinals QB Kurt Warner helped lead a 29-24 comeback victory against the 49ers on Nov. 10, 2008.
(Harry How/Getty Images)

They still got it.

Veterans in their 30s – born before the commercialization of iPods and cell phones – are serving the NFL youth.

Kurt Warner, 37, is the league’s top-rated quarterback and completed 32 of 42 passes for 328 yards and three touchdowns for the NFC-West leading Arizona Cardinals in a 29-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Monday night.

Linebacker Ray Lewis, 33, leads the Baltimore Ravens with 62 tackles and intercepted two passes in a 41-13 blowout of the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, 32, is tied for the league lead with five interceptions, including two that he returned for touchdowns.

The NFL’s three leaders in sacks (Joey Porter, John Abraham and James Harrison) are all in their 30s.

New York Jets running back Thomas Jones, 30, is well on his way to his fourth consecutive 1,100-yard season and had 26 carries for 149 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-3 blowout of the St. Louis Rams Sunday.

And three 30-something kickers (Jay Feeley, Phil Dawson and Ryan Longwell) booted field goals of at least 52 yards in Week 10.

“There’s no ancient Chinese secret to what’s going on,” said Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who, at 31, could make his first Pro Bowl because of his two touchdowns, two sacks and two interceptions this season. “Young guys just go off their athletic ability. But when you’re in your 30s, the game slows down because you’ve seen it all. And when you have a chance to make a play, you have to make it, and most of us are.”

In recent years, NFL owners and general managers are also defying convention with their investments in 30-year-olds.

In 2007, the Miami Dolphins signed Porter, just weeks from turning 30, to a five-year contract that included an astounding $20 million in guarantees. Last offseason, a pair of 30-something receivers (Randy Moss and Terrell Owens) got contracts that each averaged more than $8.5 million annually. Kicker John Kasay, 39, just penned a four-year, $9.2 million extension with the Carolina Panthers.

Lewis is scheduled to be a free agent next offseason, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has no qualms about trying to keep the former Super Bowl MVP.

“With his knowledge, and the way he prepares, and the way he keeps his body in shape, why can’t he play for three or four more years?” Newsome asked rhetorically last week.

Here is a closer look at some 30-somethings still playing at an elite level:

Kurt Warner, 37, Arizona Cardinals

Credentials: Two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl XXXIV MVP, three-time Pro Bowl selection.

This season: Leads the league in completion percentage (70.6), QB rating (106.4) and is second in yards (2,760) and touchdown passes (19).
Secret to success: About two years ago, during the offseason, Warner returned to one of his passions: basketball.

“I didn’t do it for a long time, because of fear of injuries,” Warner said. “But I play three or four times a week. It helps my conditioning, and it helps my feet.”

Warner also does cardio before heading to the Cardinals’ headquarters, usually hopping on a stair climber at home for about a half hour around 5 a.m.

The future: The easygoing Warner gets a bit defensive when asked about his struggles after leading the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV.

“It’s not like I lost something for a few years and found it again,” Warner said. “It’s just about opportunity. Maybe I didn’t have the gaudy numbers, because people expect me to throw for 30 touchdowns every year, but I think I still played good football.”

Now, he’s playing great football again.

With an improved defense and running offense, the Cardinals are atop the NFC West with a 6-3 record and a four-game cushion. Warner said he’s having a blast this season, and he doesn’t want to think about free agency next offseason.

“I feel, physically, that I can play at least two more years at this level,” Warner said. “But I haven’t made a decision on how much longer I want to play.”

Ray Lewis, 33, Baltimore Ravens

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Credentials: Super Bowl XXXV MVP, Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time Pro Bowl selection.

This season: Still the unquestioned leader of the Ravens, one of the NFL’s hottest teams, and still a force on the football field with 62 tackles, seven passes defensed and a sack.

Secret to success: Lewis said he constantly pushes himself physically and mentally.

“The focus for me is always: How can I get better? It’s never about staying the same or maintaining,” said Lewis, who trains year round. “That means more work, all the time.”

Lewis not only does extra film study at home, but he also pushes teammates to study with him.

The future: Lewis is in the final year of his contract and, as Newsome indicated, the Ravens want to re-sign him. The defense is ranked second overall, and the offense appears to have finally addressed their hole at quarterback with rookie Joe Flacco. Tied atop the AFC North, the Ravens would have a hard time replacing Lewis in the lineup during the offseason.

As for Lewis, who has never played for another team, he thinks what he learned from ageless veterans like Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe will empower him to continue to play at a high level.

“I saw what Woody and Shannon did to play so long,” Lewis said. “I will play as long as I want. I feel I could play three, four more years if it’s in God’s plan for me.”

Longtime Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan told the Associated Press two weeks ago that Lewis was “flying around like he did 10 years ago, when I first got here.”

“I can’t ever see him getting old,” Ryan later added.

Walter Jones, 34, Seattle Seahawks

(US Presswire/Kirby Lee)

Credentials: Eight-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time first-team All-Pro.

This season: The Seahawks, sacked by injuries to key players like quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, are just 2-7. But Jones is still one of the standards at offensive tackle and appears well on his way to an eighth consecutive Pro Bowl season.

Secret to success: About a year and a half ago, Jones focused on getting more rest and improving his eating habits. This season, with the help of the team, Jones fully committed himself to overhauling his diet.

“I wanted to make sure I was putting the right things in my body,” Jones said. “At this age, I can’t eat anything I see.”

Jones also has a weekly routine, something he shared with former teammate Steve Hutchinson, now a five-time Pro Bowl guard for the Vikings. After games on Sunday, they typically run, lift and chill in the ice tub on Mondays. They take Tuesdays off then work out the remaining soreness on Wednesday.

“It’s almost a goal to get back to feeling as close to normal by Thursday as you can,” Hutchinson said.

The future: Jones said his initial goal was to play in the NFL for 10 years, but he’s more than halfway through his 12th. One of the league’s highest paid offensive linemen (his deal in 2005 included $20 million in guarantees), Jones wants to fulfill his contract, which runs through the 2010 season.

“It’s a situation where you have to see how your body feels,” Jones said. “But I didn’t think I’d be feeling this good now.”

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, 31, Cincinnati Bengals

(US Presswire/Brent Hansbauer)

Credentials: One-time Pro Bowl selection who’s improved his totals for catches and receiving touchdowns each season since 2004 – peaking with his 112 catches for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns in ’07.

This season: Third in the NFL with 61 catches, and he also has 577 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

Secret to success: Houshmandzadeh struggled with minor injuries early in his NFL career. But he got a workout idea while watching “Access Hollywood” with his wife, Kaci. “I saw something on yoga,” Houshmandzadeh said, “so I started doing yoga.” Since then, he’s only missed four games, and his career has taken off.

The future: He will be 32 early next season, but Houshmandzadeh said he feels much younger since he barely played his first three NFL seasons.

“You can look at my age if you want,” Houshmandzadeh said. “But I’ve never had surgery, and I take care of myself. I haven’t smoked a cigar, cigarette or weed a day in my life.

“I’m 31, but I feel cool.”

With Lee Evans and Roy Williams signing long-term deals earlier this season, Houshmandzadeh figures to be the top receiver available in free agency.

Although the Bengals are 1-8, Houshmandzadeh said he isn’t casting a gaze on the future.

“It’s been tough,” he said, “but I’m a part of this, along with everybody else.

“Hopefully, we can work our way back to respectability.”

James Harrison, 30, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Getty Images/Gregory Shamus)

Credentials: Former undrafted player who, in his first season as a starter last year, was named the team MVP. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro

This season: Tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks, just one less than Porter. Second on the team with 63 tackles, but he also has forced three fumbles and defended two passes.

Secret to success: Early in his career, Harrison succumbed to the benefits of playing in the NFL, hitting the night spots two or three nights a week.

But three years ago, Harrison had an epiphany that compelled him to stop going out and drinking during the season.

“You realize this game isn’t going to last forever,” Harrison said. “There was no need for me to go out and party until 1 or 2, and then go into work early in the morning. If my body isn’t in top shape, then I can’t do my job to the best of my ability.”

The future: A special teams ace and a dependable backup, Harrison got a chance to shine in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense last season after the departure of Porter to Miami.

Harrison stepped up. He led the team in tackles (98), sacks (8½) and forced fumbles (six).

Harrison has proven that last season wasn’t a fluke, already racking up 11 sacks and forcing three fumbles.

Harrison said he doesn’t have much “wear and tear” because of his relative inexperience.

“The fact that I’m 30 doesn’t factor into anything, because I’ve only had one year of starting,” he said.

Signed through next season, Harrison acknowledges his desire to get “a big contract so you don’t have to worry about anything.”

Besides, he said, he doesn’t have to impress everybody.

“When it comes down it, a team is either going to pay you or not,” he said. “But there are 31 other teams out there, and all you have to do is get one to like you.”

Champ Bailey, 30, Denver Broncos

(US Presswire/John Rieger)

Credentials: Eight-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time All-Pro.

This season: Bailey has missed the last two games with a groin injury, but he’s expected to return to the lineup for this weekend’s match up against his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons. Coming off an injury, one of the league’s premier corners may actually have some balls thrown in his direction.

Secret to success: Bailey doesn’t pretend to have any magical answer.

“You got to have a little bit of luck,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”

In his previous nine seasons, Bailey missed a grand total of three games.

“Physically, I haven’t had any major injuries,” Bailey said.

The future: Bailey respects players like Winfield and Charles Woodson, whom he considers “the second best to me.”

Bailey said the lack of opportunities to make plays reinforces that he’s still the stick by which all cornerbacks are measured. But Bailey said he doesn’t get complacent.

“I always think I can do better,” he said.

Signed through the 2010 season, Bailey said he doesn’t think about how long he can play. But he said teams recognize the importance of leadership and “proven players.”

Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.