By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Ides of March are fast approaching, and Jimmy Garoppolo remains an employed member of the New England Patriots. It is a situation that has caused a bit of commotion, as well as some confusion.
The future of Garoppolo remains a hotly contested debate, one that’s led to Instagram posts — of both the innocuous and hacked varieties — to come under intense scrutiny and analysis. And with good reason.
Considering the Patriots are “loading up” with the likes of Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore and Kony Ealy, and with the likely re-signing of Dont’a Hightower and the probable retainment of Malcolm Butler, and considering Tom Brady appears to be bathing in the Fountain of Youth each morning, it’s been a bit befuddling as to why the Patriots would be reluctant or downright unwilling to trade their backup quarterback — especially when he could net them at the very least a high first-round pick.
With an MVP-caliber quarterback already in place, what good does it do the Patriots to keep Garoppolo? That’s a question that’s become even more difficult to answer when one considers that the Patriots spent a third-round pick to take quarterback Jacoby Brissett last year.
Yet while everybody speculates and wonders … perhaps the answer is as obvious as can be.
Maybe Belichick refuses to part ways with Garoppolo simply because Tom Brady is about to turn 40 years old.
Obviously, Brady just completed a season during which he never once looked to be 39 years old. He set an NFL record with a 14-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He posted the second-best completion rate and the second-best passer rating of his entire career. Playing in just 12 regular-season games and throwing 28 touchdowns, he matched or bettered the touchdown total in seven of his full seasons. He set a career high in passing yards in a single postseason with 1,137. He busted out a 15-yard run in the Super Bowl, and his MVP performance from that victory was downright historic.
Certainly, if there’s any one quarterback in the history of the sport of football who looks ready and able to redefine what it means to be a 40-year-old passer, it would appear to be Tom Brady. Against many odds, Brady has made his goal of playing into his mid-40s at a high level seem realistic.
That’s all well and good — and frankly, from this perspective, there’s little reason to doubt Brady anymore. But for as much as fans and some media might be willing to buy in to the TB12 diet and the pliability training … to what extent does a man like Belichick buy in? Knowing what we know about Belichick, is he more likely to believe in the 40-plus-year collection of data on 40-year-old quarterbacks, or is he more likely to believe that he’s lucky enough to have the one outlier in football history on his roster?
You know the way that Belichick thinks. He is cold and he is calculated. And for as wonderful as Brady’s budding enterprise as a health and fitness guru may be, it’s likely that Belichick looks at Brady more as a 40-year-old quarterback than as a trailblazer in the field of extending careers. The NFL is too fast, too vicious, for Belichick to rely on Brady being an aberration.
It may sound like a large generalization, but in the process of looking through history last week in a story about Brett Favre’s age 40 season, it became clear just how rare it’s been for any quarterback to ever have success at that age.
Favre was, really, the first quarterback to ever have an outstanding, MVP-caliber season at that age, when he turned 40 in early October of the 2009 season. But even with that success (68.4 percent passing, 4,202 yards, 33 TDs, 7 INTs), Favre dropped off dramatically at age 41, when he threw 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions and had his season cut short due to a shoulder injury and a concussion.
In Brady’s case, he may be the greatest quarterback of all time, but he’s not the first great quarterback to play the game. In the modern era, 26 quarterbacks have played well enough to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of those 26, just six have played at age 40. And, aside from Favre, their performances weren’t exactly inspiring.
George Blanda, 1967-75 (ages 40-48):
126 games, 1 game started
23 TDs, 18 INTs
1-0 record, 77.5 passer rating
Len Dawson, 1975 (age 40)
12 games, 5 games started
5 TDs, 4 INTs
1-4 record, 90.0 passer rating
Sonny Jurgensen, 1974 (age 40)
14 games, 4 games started
11 TDs, 5 INTs
3-1 record, 94.5 passer rating
Warren Moon, 1996-2000 (ages 40-44)
36 games, 33 games started
44 TDs, 34 INTs
15-18 record, 77.7 passer rating
Johnny Unitas, 1974 (age 40)
5 games, 4 games started
3 TDs, 7 INTs
1-3 record, 40.0 passer rating
Among Hall of Famers, that’s it. That’s the entire record of accomplishments for Hall of Fame quarterbacks at and after the age of 40. None of it is particularly inspiring.
Extending the crop outside of Hall of Famers, the results aren’t much better.
Vinny Testaverde, 2003-07 (ages 40-44)
39 games, 32 games started
31 TDs, 35 INTs
10-22 record, 76.0 passer rating
Doug Flutie, 2002-05 (ages 40-43)
15 games, 6 games started
10 TDs, 4 INTs
3-3 record, 80.4 passer rating
Steve DeBerg 1998 (age 44)
8 games, 1 game started
3 TDs, 1 INT
0-1 record, 80.4 passer rating
Earl Morrall, 1974-76 (ages 40-42)
41 games, 2 games started
6 TDs, 6 INTs
2-0 record, 74.2 passer rating
Mark Brunell, 2010-11 (ages 40-41)
18 games, 0 games started
2 TDs, 1 INT
0-0 record, 94.8 passer rating
Charlie Conerly, 1961 (age 40)
13 games, 4 games started
7 TDs, 8 INTs
(Sacks weren’t tallied in 1961)
2-2 record, 52.2 passer rating
Vince Evans, 1995 (age 40)
9 games, 3 games started
6 TDs, 8 INTs
1-2 record, 71.5 passer rating
Matt Hasselbeck, 2015 (age 40)
8 games, 8 games started
9 TDs, 5 INTs
5-3 record, 84.0 passer rating
Brad Johnson, 2008 (age 40)
16 games, 3 games started
2 TDs, 5 INTs
1-2 record, 50.5 passer rating
That is a collection of everything those quarterbacks accomplished at age 40 and beyond. Again, it’s not inspiring.
(Interestingly, Testaverde’s post-40 career included the 2006 season with the Patriots, when Belichick was kind enough to let Vinny throw a grand total of three passes.)
Of those 14 quarterbacks, only two started more than eight total games in their careers after 40. The two who did — Testaverde and Moon — played for teams with combined records of 76-84.
The combined record of those 14 quarterbacks at age 40 and older is 45-61. The quarterbacks collectively threw 162 touchdowns and 141 interceptions. And only half of them made it past age 40.
You look at it like that, and the picture starts to take shape. It really comes down to two questions. First, is Brady going to be the one quarterback to continue to play the position at a championship level through his early 40s? More importantly, is Belichick going to rely on that happening?
You can’t know the answer to the first question, but it feels like we know the answer to the second. It would be distinctly un-Belichickian to get caught off guard, as he always manages his roster with an eye toward the future. There’s no doubt whatsoever that Brady will be given the most leeway of any Patriots player over the past two decades, but still, the human body in that league has its limits.
Even if Brady bucks the trend by performing with excellence at age 40, how difficult will it be to buck that trend again at age 41? And 42?
So, as it relates to the Patriots’ hanging on to the promising young quarterback named Jim, while the rest of the world marvels at the idea of a 44-year-old Tom Brady tearing up the league, perhaps Bill Belichick is taking a much more measured approach to ensuring he’s set at the most important position in professional sports.