If anyone can wring the last vestiges of greatness from his 41-year-old right arm, it is Tom Brady.
Brady’s body isn’t broken down the way John Elway’s was when he passed on an historic three-peat. It isn’t broken down the way Peyton Manning’s was when he captured his second Super Bowl championship. Not even close.
But there are growing signs that in the remake of Tom vs Time, it is Time who is flexing his ageless muscles and reminding one and all who the true GOAT is. It is Time, aka Father Time, who eventually breaks your spirit and your will and your bones and causes you to see the ghosts of Deion Sanders or Lawrence Taylor and ends your career in his terms and not yours, no matter who you are.
You doubt Brady at your own peril, and maybe he can yet remember how to lift his Patriots to a sixth Lombardi Trophy … but odds favor we are witnessing the first hints of his football mortality.
For years and years, Brady’s laser arm and focus and raging fire and computer-like football brain were able to overcome not having a Randy Moss or an injured Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman. A diminished Gronk and offensive line certainly have not helped him, and now he will be without suspended Josh Gordon.
At times even now, Brady can still look forever young, can still look like no 41-year-old quarterback should ever look.
But then there are times when he gives defenses little reason to fear him the way they used to always fear him with the game on the line. To wit: a fourth-quarter red zone interception off his back foot by Joe Haden, then second-and-15, third-and-15 and fourth-and-15 incompletions from the Steelers 21 at the end of last week’s 17-10 loss.
“I don’t think that Brady two years ago would have missed three consecutive passes,” NFL.com senior analyst and SiriusXM NFL Radio host Gil Brandt told Serby Says.
Brandt’s criteria for gauging whether a quarterback is beginning to backslide:
“No. 1, he’s throwing for a lesser completion percentage.”
Brady’s 65.9 is only marginally lower than last season (66.3), though it is his lowest mark since 2015.
“No. 2, he’s throwing more interceptions percentage-wise than he was in the past,” Brandt said.
Brady’s 1.8 percent is his highest since 2013 (1.8).
“A quarterback’s average [yards] per attempt goes from, let’s say, 8.50 to 8.42 to 8.38,” Brandt said.
Brady’s has gone from 8.2 in 2016 to 7.9 last season to 7.8 this season.
“The other thing is that when he’s injured, he stays injured longer,” Brandt said.
Brady (24 touchdowns, seven interceptions) has not missed a game, but there is a report from NFL Media’s Mike Giardi that Brady might be playing on a torn left MCL. Brady is not required to be listed on the injury report if he is not limited.
Brady’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“I don’t see the drop off,” NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger said.
Baldinger, who watched every play against the Steelers, was asked what the telltale signs for an aging quarterback would be.
“The deep out — is it dying to the sideline? And you did see that a couple of times last week,” Baldinger said. “But then you’re saying, well T.J. Watt beat the right tackle all day long, is he just not being able to set his feet to be able to drive that ball to the sideline? And then the deep ball. He overthrew, I think it was Edelman, if I’m not mistaken, but the ball was in the air 55 yards, like he just put it in the holster and just took it out and threw it.”
Often times, the aging quarterback, following an accumulation of hits, will flinch.
“He’s still standing 6-foot-6 in the pocket and [is] still making the throw,” Baldinger said.
Former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride detected no difference in Brady earlier in the season.
“The criticism that I’ve heard is plausible, though I have no idea if it’s accurate or not. … I don’t care how tough you are, you wind up having to get rid of the ball faster than you want just because you’re tired of getting hit, and so you start unloading on that thing a little bit quicker than you want,” Gilbride said. “It’s possible that subconsciously you’re trying to get rid of the ball a little bit more. More likely, it’s something else with the complimentary parts.”
The great ones figure out ways to compensate once they recognize even the most subtle signs of slippage. Muhammad Ali knew he couldn’t dance at age 32 against George Foreman the way he danced at age 22 against Sonny Liston, hence the rope-a-dope.
Josh McCown is Sam Darnold’s 39-year-old mentor.
“If you process better and your mind gets faster, then you can cut corners where maybe physically, if you lose a step or lose some RPMs on your ball, your brain kind of makes up that gap, that sliding scale, and so I think that’s what allows guys to play a little longer,” McCown said.
Naysayers eager to throw the book at Brady — especially his book: “The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance” — might be advised to exercise caution before writing the definitive last chapter.
Remember that 41-14 Monday night loss four years ago to the Chiefs, when some wondered whether it was maybe time for Jimmy Garoppolo? Brady was 37 at the time. Two days later, Bill Belichick was announcing “We’re on to Cincinnati.” And soon the Patriots were winning Super Bowl XLIX.
But Brady has never been 41 years old toward the end of December either.
Brett Favre, one exception to the age-old rule, was 40 when he fashioned a 107.2 rating and led the Vikings to the 2009 NFC Championship game. Peyton Manning was 37 when he threw an NFL-record 55 TD passes but two years later retired a shell of his Hall of Fame self after capturing his second Super Bowl championship. Warren Moon tossed 25 TD passes at age 41. The majority of them begin fading by the mid-30s.
Advances in medical, strength and flexibility training along with smarter diets — avocado ice cream, anyone? — and lifestyle choices have aided Brady’s sustained assault on excellence. Rule changes further protecting quarterbacks certainly don’t hurt.
Elway became the oldest player to win Super Bowl MVP at 38, but recognized he had so little left in his tank.
“I never had to go through so many things just to get ready for practice,’’ Elway said at his retirement press conference.
Joe Montana retired at 38 following s season where his QB rating was nearly 10 points below his career 92.3.
“I really am not as fired up or excited about working out,” he said at his retirement ceremony. “It wasn’t as much fun. I wasn’t looking forward to it as much. There were just some signs that just said this is not the way it’s ever been before. I felt it was the right time for me.”
Brady threw for 505 yards and three TDs in the Patriots’ 41-33 Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles. It isn’t etched in stone that you have to fall off a cliff.
ESPN’s Charles Woodson: “I think the hits are getting to him, and you see him trying to get the ball get out of his hand to avoid taking those hits.”
Former Rams Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson on Fox Sports 1 last month: “First of all, Tom Brady, in football terms, is an old-ass man. … Look, Tom is a great quarterback. But his time is over. … Well, it’s coming to an end.”
Moon, a Hall of Famer, to Bleacher Report: “The numbers are starting to show that there’s a deterioration coming. … Even though your mind knows where you should be going, sometimes your body just doesn’t react as fast. You’re starting to see some of that with him.”
Though Brandt said he believes this has been Bill Belichick’s best coaching job, he says, “Brady’s a guy that has got tremendous pride, and I think anytime you have tremendous pride, you’re always gonna think that, ‘There’s one last gasp in me.’ ”
One last gasp from a 41-year-old GOAT may be it.
“I’m not sure he has enough left in him to lift the team up,” Brandt said.
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