When Tom Brady takes the field Saturday night for the New England Patriots’ first possession against the Houston Texans, his numbers will all be mentioned, because they are remarkable. Pick the one you like the best. A personal favorite: In 432 pass attempts this season, Brady threw two (2) interceptions. That’s not just a record. It’s 115 more throws than anyone else who had just two picks in a season. Heck, it’s 97 more than anyone who threw just three.
Hey, New England: Need a time suck between now and when the Pats kick off? Dive into the numbers on an all-time great. So much to explore.
But the one that might be the most fascinating? 39.
That’s Brady’s age. It’s an age at which football players normally contemplate retirement. Actually, “contemplate” is wrong. It’s an age before which football players usually retire.
Which brings us to this: No other 39-year-old quarterback, in the history of the game, has produced a season comparable to what Brady just did.
Consider the following list of quarterbacks: Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young. Now tally up the total number of snaps they took at age 39. You get: zero.
Read them again. They are all Hall of Famers. And that’s just a partial list. Of the 25 post-World War II quarterbacks who are in the Hall, 18 never played a down at the age at which Brady just enjoyed one of his best seasons. Those who did play at 39 and beyond, with rare exceptions, were somewhere at the intersection of mediocre, awful and irrelevant.
“The more you play,” Fouts said by phone this week, “the more beat up you get.”
This from a man who, at 39, was three years into his second career – as an analyst for the NFL on CBS.
Explore some more. Peyton Manning threw for more yards than any quarterback in the history of the game. Yet in the season in which he was 39, he was a frail, spaghetti-armed ghost who tossed nearly twice as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, was benched for a time, and won a Super Bowl on the back of a superior defense. Every snap felt like it might be Manning’s last, like he just might wither right in front of us. He retired in the offseason, and the general reaction was, “Thank God.”
Brady? Retirement simply doesn’t come up. The reasons: He completed 67.4 percent of his passes, threw for 296.2 yards per game, and posted a quarterback rating of 112.2. It is the best season ever produced by a quarterback who was at least 39 by so many measures – highest percentage of passes for touchdowns, lowest percentage of passes intercepted, highest quarterback rating, most yards per game, most yards per attempt. Forget playing the season. A 39-year-old could grow tired just dissecting it.
Indeed, the only thing truly holding back 2016 from being included among Brady’s three best seasons is the fact that he sat out the first four games because he may or may not have had knowledge of the inflation levels of footballs used in a game nearly two years ago. Count the absurdity of “Deflategate” against him, because maybe it allowed him to preserve his aging body? Fine. Whatever.
But consider what Jerry Reese, the general manager of the New York Giants, said just this week in assessing his quarterback, Eli Manning, Peyton’s younger brother.
“We always think about every position, but Eli is 36,” Reese told reporters following the Giants’ departure from the playoffs. “We have started to think about who’s the next quarterback, who’s in line.”
Anywhere outside Foxboro, it’s a reasonable approach. Yet in the three seasons after Brady turned 36, he threw for 97 touchdowns, 18 picks and a quarterback rating of 103.1. So such questions about who’s next in New England have the feeling of being permanently moot, because there is no indication that the incumbent is slipping.
How is this happening?
“As you get older,” said former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, “the game actually gets easier. It definitely slows down for you.”
This part makes sense, and Moon is the perfect person to articulate it. Until Brady put together his 2016, Moon likely authored the best season by a 39-year-old in history — throwing 33 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, and then playing five more years. The only player Brady’s age or older to even approach his 2016: Brett Favre, at 40 with the Vikings in 2009, when he had 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions for a rating of 107.2.
There are physical steps players must take to continue to excel at an advanced age. When Fouts approached his mid-30s, Don Coryell, his coach with the San Diego Chargers, told Fouts he could remain in the treatment room while the team worked through the defensive and special teams portions of practice. Moon employed a maniacal pre-practice regimen that involved stretching his rotator cuff, kept himself on something of a “pitch count” during training camp — say, no more than 65 passes in a day — and studied how legendary pitchers Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser took care of their arms, not to mention how Roger Clemens derived power from his legs.
Brady’s obsession with fitness, healthy eating and meticulous preparation is well-documented. He missed all but the first game of the 2008 season with a shredded left knee. Other than that, he has made each of his 266 scheduled starts, including the playoffs, since he took over in 2001. He spoke after the Patriots completed a 14-2 regular season of the “prioritization” he places on balancing practice time and recovery.
“After 17 years,” Brady said, “I’ve got a pretty good balance for those things.”
And after 17 years, we just assume Brady will be here, in January, hosting a playoff game his team is expected to win. When will such expectations cease?
“He says he wants to play until he’s 50,” Moon said by phone. “I don’t think he’ll be able to do that. But …”
But right now, in New England and around the NFL, no one’s talking about the end for Brady. It simply doesn’t seem that close. What’s more likely, in the next two years: Brady wins another Super Bowl or Brady retires?
The answer is easy, even if what he is doing is unprecedented.