Tom Brady Is Entering QB No Man's Land vs. Father Time
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady barely had time to pick the confetti off himself following his fifth Super Bowl win Sunday when the inevitable questions came. He had previously answered them repeatedly, but a standard post-championship routine with aging players needed to be followed.
Is the end near? When is he going to retire? Is there an exit date in mind yet?
The answers in order seemed to be "nope," shoulder shrug and "nah."
"If it was up to my wife, she would have me retire today," Brady told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Monday. "She told me that last night three times. And I said, 'Too bad, babe, I'm having too much fun right now.'"
It's too bad for the rest of the league as well, especially the AFC East.
Brady didn't play like a 39-year-old during the 2016 season, a year that ended with him finishing second in MVP voting even after missing four games. He threw just two interceptions, the lowest single-year total of his career during a full season. That resulted in the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history (28:2). He also completed 67.4 percent of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt.
Brady was masterful in every way during a season highlighted by his Super Bowl-record 466 passing yards. He didn't play or look like a legend who's set to turn 40 before the 2017 season. But that looming age barrier is coming, which is why Brady will have to keep swatting away retirement questions.
He won't back down from that fight against time, and he seems to have little appetite for your concerns about an abrupt age-induced spiral. On the morning of Super Bowl LI, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported the Patriots are planning for Brady to play another three to five years.
Playing and playing effectively are two wildly different goals for aging quarterbacks, as Peyton Manning's rapid decline with the Denver Broncos recently demonstrated. Despite the brilliance we all just witnessed, the same holds true for Brady, too.
Brady's offseason preparation borders on obsessive with his dieting and workout regimen, which is why there's reason to believe he can keep beating both opponents and every historical age precedent. But there are a whole lot of broken-down bodies lying at the age wall he's getting prepared to climb.
There have only been five seasons in the post-merger NFL where a 40-plus-year-old quarterback started 10 or more games, according to Pro Football Reference. Four of those five seasons belong to two quarterbacks: Brett Favre and Warren Moon. And out of that tiny group, the oldest quarterback was 42.
Looking back on the longevity of Favre, Moon and Vinny Testaverde is a reminder that Brady has to be more than just great to keep the current era of Patriots football alive. He has to somehow sustain his historic greatness while avoiding the sudden decline that's struck even the league's top iron men.
Brett Favre, the Ultimate Iron Man
Brett Favre did more than just withstand the rigors of football until an ancient age in quarterback terms.
His body seemed to be impenetrable, with a record-setting consecutive starts streak that stretched to the end of his age-41 season. The NFL's most famous iron man started 297 straight games. Brady, meanwhile, hasn't missed a game due to injury since 2008.
But Favre's body did finally fail to mend itself after suffering through too many dents and whacks. His history of health became irrelevant at the age of 41, as he missed three games and limped through many others while his play declined dramatically.
After throwing only seven interceptions during his age-40 season, Favre's pick total spiked to 19 over 13 games the following year. If there's a gunslinger union, Favre is the leader, so it's easy to assume he was just regressing back to his typical risk-taking ways. But the rest of his production from that final year—or rather, the lack thereof—tells a different story.
During his age-38 season, Favre finished with a completion percentage of 66.5. It stayed steady at 65.7 at age 39 and then climbed to 68.4 at age 40. At 41, however, Favre completed only 60.6 percent of his attempts. His passer rating also plunged to a career single-season low of 69.9.
The most troubling number tied to Favre's quick fall was his passing yards through the air. In 2009, he threw for 2,268 yards through the air, according to Pro Football Focus, which accounted for 54.2 percent of his overall passing yardage. The following season, his air yards fell to 1,202, which was 47.9 percent of his total yardage.
Favre did his annual waffling with retirement not because he sought own the news cycle for two weeks every August (well, maybe it was a bit of that). No, the 11-time Pro Bowler did that because mentally, he wasn't sure whether he could continue with the grind of training camp and the preparation to play each week. Physically he could still perform, and he did. Until suddenly he didn't.
In 2009, we were thinking and saying the same things about Favre that Brady is being praised for now. He was still playing at a high level after having one of his best career seasons at the age of 40. And he had just finished a deep playoff run, albeit one that ended in the most Favre-ian disaster imaginable.
Brady has made 124 straight regular-season starts, and he's coming off a campaign in which he averaged eight-plus yards per pass attempt for only the third time in his 17-year career.
He fully deserved every MVP vote he received this season. The hard part now is not becoming Favre.
Warren Moon, the Late Bloomer
Warren Moon is the other notable quarterback who defied the laws of aging.
At the time of his retirement, Moon was one of the three oldest quarterbacks ever to start an NFL game. Playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2000, he made a spot start for Elvis Grbac only eight days 44th birthday.
But Moon was much more than some figurehead veteran leader. He only took on that role during his final two seasons. Prior to that, the Hall of Famer made 24 starts while 40-plus years old, one fewer than Favre did.
Moon, who began his professional football career in the Canadian Football League, didn't face the greater physical punishment of the NFL until his age-28 season. But he joined the NFL after logging six seasons in the CFL, five of which ended with him hoisting the Grey Cup.
During his age-41 season, Moon averaged a league-best 245.2 passing yards per game, the fifth-highest single-season average of his long NFL career. He started 14 games that year, guiding the Seattle Seahawks to a 7-7 record in those contests.
Brady should be encouraged by Moon's career path as he rounds the corner toward 40. But Moon's numbers crashed after his age-41 season, as his per-game passing average fell to 163.2 across 10 starts the following year.
Vinny Testaverde Just Kept Hanging Around
The NFL had a three-year period when Vinny Testaverde was the quarterback version of the close friend who's always ready for an airport pickup. You'd call him during a time of need, and good ol' Vinny would be there despite having long passed the typical age of retirement.
If it wasn't for his longevity, Testaverde's career would have been relatively ordinary. He would have been remembered as an underwhelming No. 1 overall pick who was less than spectacular for seven teams over 21 NFL seasons.
It's how he kept going that gives Brady both hope and crushing caution. Testaverde was ready whenever a quarterback depth chart devolved into smoldering ruins.
Testaverde's last season as a full-time starter came in 2004 with the Dallas Cowboys, when he started 15 games during his age-41 campaign. He was serviceable, throwing for 3,532 yards and 17 touchdowns while guiding Dallas to a 5-10 record, though that level of play can be considered a gift from any 40-year-old. Testaverde led the league in interceptions that year with 20.
The following year, the Testaverde bat signal went up when the New York Jets lost both Chad Pennington and Jay Fielder to injury. He started four games and threw just one touchdown pass against six interceptions.
Testaverde still wasn't done, as his emergency bedside phone rang once more in 2006. This time, the Carolina Panthers had lost both Jake Delhomme and David Carr, reducing them to relying on a signal-caller in his age-44 season. Testaverde made six starts and became the oldest starting quarterback to win a game. He was predictably limited as a passer, though, averaging only 5.5 yards per attempt.
The Challenge That Lies Ahead
Brady doesn't want to decline and become Testaverde. He doesn't want to cling to a career and be congratulated for merely being on the field at his advanced age. No, he wants to thrive as Moon and Favre did, making us all forget about the creeping hand of Father Time.
If Brady is still playing at his current level or anything close to it three years from now, that will be one of his best accomplishments during a career full of them. He will have beaten more than just opposing defenses and coordinators aiming to stop the Patriots dynasty.
At that point, Brady will have beaten history while reshaping the precedent for longevity at his position. Time is his next opponent, and besting it repeatedly will put an even larger crown on Brady's head as he sits atop the all-time quarterback throne.