BOSTON (CBS) — Death, taxes, and writers rushing to tell you that Tom Brady’s career is on the decline as soon as the Patriots are knocked out of the playoffs — these are your guarantees in life.
This year is no different. You knew that as soon as the clock hit zeroes at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, someone somewhere was warming up his or her keyboard to write the annual story about Brady’s “closing window” and “declining skills.” Despite the obvious fact that Tom Brady gets older each year and that athletic careers don’t last forever, the stories come rushing in every winter.
One noteworthy example this year comes from ESPN’s KC Joyner, who wrote the cleverly titled “Tom Brady’s decline has begun.”
“As painful as it is to say this, after a detailed review of the 2012 New England Patriots season, it looks like Tom Brady, who will turn 36 prior to the 2013 season, will very soon serve as another example of this type of dramatic decline,” Joyner wrote. “Brady’s YPA (7.6) and completion percentage (63.0) were his lowest since 2006 and his touchdown percentage (5.3) was his lowest since 2009.”
Joyner used Brady’s December’s 10-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio against him, which is rather unfair and misleading because it ignores the fact that Brady’s TD-to-INT ratio was 24-to-3 from September through November. (Though to be fair, I suppose Brady was older in December than he was in November, so age could have been a factor.)
Joyner also stated the obvious, that Brady looked “painfully slow” on a fourth-and-4 run against the Ravens, when all he needed to do was outrun the behemoth known as Haloti Ngata to pick up a first down but instead threw a hopeless pass to the turf. Brady no doubt looked bad on that play, but the man has never looked to be a fluid athlete when running, as evidenced by the fact that his longest career run is 22 yards and he’s averaged 1.9 yards per carry throughout his career. The fact that Brady has had exactly one “Wow!” run in his entire career (2006, when he put the jukes on Brian Urlacher on the brand new fake turf at Gillette) tells you a lot about the man’s mobility, or lack thereof.
Using that one run in January 2013 to say Brady looks old is the equivalent of saying Drew Brees looks old because he can’t kick field goals. It’s just not a part of Brady’s skill set, and it never has been.
The article then states that “the book on Brady since the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII is that a strong pass rush can rattle him,” which is also true but again not necessarily indicative of a decline due to aging. Most people would agree that Brady was a decent quarterback in 2007, when he was 30 years old and set the NFL record with 50 touchdowns in the highest-scoring offense in the history of the sport. So was it his age and declining skills that allowed the Giants’ pass rush to rattle him in the Super Bowl, or was it the simple fact of the job of quarterback being much more difficult when 270-pound men are rushing toward you and looking to knock your head off your body?
Joyner indisputably nailed the fact that Brady’s accuracy was a bit off this season. He counted 46 missed completions and a number of completions where the yards-after-catch potential was not fulfilled due to adjustments the receivers had to make on the off-target passes. If you watch closely on Brady’s passes this year, you surely noticed it. At the same time, you likely noticed Brady completing 63 percent of his passes, right at his career average of 63.7, and you likely noticed Brady compiling the second highest yardage total of his entire career, despite never really having the full No. 1 offense on the field more than once or twice.
It certainly wasn’t the greatest season of Brady’s career, but it shouldn’t have been, for many reasons other than his date of birth.
Look, there’s no way that a 35- or 36-year-old can be as athletic as he was when he was 28 or 30 years old. That’s how life works. But sports also work differently in that veteran savvy and an encyclopedic knowledge of game experience can be equalizers — especially for the greatest of all time. Wayne Gretzky played in all 82 games in back-to-back seasons when he was 36 and 37, and he led the league in assists both years. Joe Montana won two playoff games in 1993 at the age of 37. Martin Broduer led his Devils to a Stanley Cup Final trip last year at the age of 40. Nolan Ryan led the league in ERA at the age of 40, and he led the league in strikeouts at the ages of 40, 41, 42 and 43.
Those are the modern legends to whom Brady should be compared. The great ones get older, and they lose a little off their fastball, but they still manage to be great. Their greatness doesn’t age.
The ESPN article uses Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and Dan Marino as cautionary tales for Brady, which is fine. But those three QBs never had Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and (possibly) Wes Welker to help extend their run of dominance.
Last season, from Week 1 through championship weekend, Tom Brady was one of the best quarterbacks in the league. At least 24 general managers (and all three in the AFC East) would have contemplated cutting off their left hands if it meant they could replace their quarterbacks with Brady for the next three years. He ranked fourth in touchdowns, and fourth in yards, and among quarterbacks with at least 400 passing attempts, he was tied for the fewest interceptions, despite throwing the fourth-most passes. While his AFC Championship Game performance was forgettable, remember that his first interception came off a batted ball at the line of scrimmage, and his second was forced into coverage when the Patriots were desperately trailing by 15 points with a little more than a minute left in the game. It also came one week after a 344-yard, three-touchdown, zero-interception showing in the divisional round, a performance that itself wasn’t perfect but speaks volumes about how great Brady can be, even when he’s not at his athletic best.
He’s pretty damn good. Next season, he’ll be one year older, but he’ll once again be pretty damn good.
Maybe the Patriots will need to limit his throws (637 is a lot) during the year so he’s got more left in the tank come January. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, the Patriots are in a pretty favorable position when it comes to quarterback.
Is he getting more athletic over the next couple of years? No, of course not. He’s only getting older. But it really doesn’t matter.