TAMPA — Four years ago, Tom Brady threw for more yards than any 40-year-old in NFL history and became the oldest quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. If he had stopped there, we would still be marveling at the unimpeded trajectory of his career.
Three years ago, Brady broke another yardage record for a 41-year-old and won his sixth Super Bowl in New England. Two years ago, he broke the record for a 42-year-old quarterback and passed Brett Favre and Peyton Manning on the all-time yardage list.
And last year?
Last year in Tampa Bay, Brady threw for nearly five times as many yards as any quarterback had ever done at age 43 or older. He won a seventh Super Bowl, was named the game’s MVP and, as an afterthought following a tipsy boat parade, turned avocado tequila into an Internet craze.
There is no doubt he has now blown past Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, George Blanda and anyone else you could name as the greatest 40-something football player of all-time. Which means the more interesting question is this:
Has Brady become the greatest middle-aged athlete in the history of major team sports?
Baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was still throwing 97 mph when his arm blew out at age 46. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still dropping sky hooks at age 41 in Los Angeles. Gordie Howe won the World Hockey Association MVP award at 45 and played his last NHL game at 52.
They are all incredible, inspiring stories. Each unique for their time and circumstance. But there is something even more remarkable about the Brady story. Something unimaginable in almost every previous attempt to outwit Father Time.
Brady is playing just as well, and in some ways better, than he ever did before.
“You can count on two hands the people who have done it in any sport into their late 40s,” said famed pitching coach Tom House, who has worked with Brady as a consultant the past six years. “What Tom is doing now is not just playing like an elite NFL quarterback, he’s doing things that only the elite of the elite have done. This is the elite of the Hall of Fame elite.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Brady is still considered an elite player after turning 44. In a recent countdown of the top 100 players currently in the NFL, he was ranked No. 7 by his peers. The average age of the rest of the players in the top 10 was 28.
“It’s amazing the fire that burns in him that makes him do this,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “There’s nobody out there competing any harder than him. It’s awesome.”
Brady’s performance for the Bucs in 2020 easily could stand beside his best seasons in New England. He topped 40 touchdown passes for only the second time in his career. His 102.2 passer rating was better than his career average. His 4,633 yards were the fifth-best of his career.
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The point is that most other athletes who make it beyond 40 are clearly winding down. Favre took the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game at 40, but his skills deteriorated so quickly that he retired by 41. Drew Brees reached the playoffs last year at 41, but his shoulder was weak and his foot was hurting and he turned in his playbook shortly after the Bucs beat the Saints. Manning took the Broncos to a Super Bowl at 39 but he was hardly the same player as his prime and retired after the game. John Elway also hung it up after a Super Bowl win in Denver at 38.
There have been pitchers who have gone into their late 40s — Ryan, Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro, Jamie Moyer, Hoyt Wilhelm — but they weren’t making any of baseball’s top 10 lists at the time.
Vince Carter and Robert Parish both played in the NBA until they were 43, but they had turned into journeymen role players. Howe was a force of nature in the WHA while Chris Chelios and Zdeno Chara were effective defensemen in their mid-40s but, again, no one was suggesting they were among the best players in their sport by that point.
What Brady has done is practically unprecedented. Two decades later, the numbers say there is no discernible slippage in his game.
“You’ve got to put the work in, you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to be humble enough to learn,” Brady said during training camp. “You can’t think you know everything. Football is too difficult of a game and it’s not an individual sport. It’s a coordination between a lot of different people.
“Physically, I feel great. The best I’ve felt really in a long time.”
House, who was Nolan Ryan’s pitching coach with the Rangers before becoming an arm-motion guru to some of the biggest names in baseball and football, has worked with Brady off-and-on for more than a decade.
He said scientific advancements in nutrition, biomechanics and other areas make a middle-aged career a possibility for any athlete, but they have to be willing to make tremendous sacrifices to keep their bodies in peak condition. Ryan and Brady, he said, are the rare ones with that devotion. Athletes who are already millionaires many times over, but are motivated more by the thrill of competition.
“That’s the one thing I see in common with these special athletes that compete into their 40s, they’re like big 12-year-olds. They just love to play the game,” House said. “Nolan and Brady are different human beings but very common in their makeup. They have this compelling need to get better every day. Tom is always looking and listening for a way to get incrementally better, even if it’s just one percent.
“I met with him at UCLA maybe a month ago and I think he’s throwing the ball as well now as he has at any time in the last 5-6 years. It boils down to he will do whatever he can possibly do to perform at the elite level.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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