By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Tom Brady discussion figures to rage for weeks and months. It’s understandable. He’s the greatest quarterback of all time, the Michael Jordan of football, and he’s been around forever, wearing just one logo on his helmet for the entirety of his professional career. If he spends another year with the Patriots, he’ll tie the NFL record (currently shared by a kicker and a punter, not anybody who gets hit by linebackers and defensive ends) for longest career spent with just one team. If he puts on another team’s jersey, the football world’s equilibrium will be thrown out of whack. And if he retires, well, the NFL will be worse off for it.
So naturally, his mysterious present and future makes for quite a bit of chatter.
On that topic, the discussion should begin here: Yes, Tom Brady is more than physically capable of continuing his quarterbacking career in the NFL.
If you were to only look at the statistics or the final result of the Patriots’ season, you might believe this to be false. Brady threw just 24 touchdowns, his fewest since 2006, while completing just 60.8 percent of his passes, his worst mark since 2013. The Patriots lost their only playoff game, marking the first time the team hasn’t reached the divisional round of the playoffs since 2009.
Taken together, one might assume that it could be deduced that the end has arrived. That would be faulty logic. Certainly, when Brady had (by his Hall of Fame standards) a dreadful season in 2006, it was not due to old age. He was 29 years old. Brady went to work that year with the weakest receiving crew of his career, and first-year offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels struggled to make it all work.
A year later, the team added Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and McDaniels figured out a thing or two about the job. Brady set records.
So, again, to look solely at the stats would be to ignore what’s played out on the football field. The 2019 season started with losing center David Andrews for the year two weeks before the season opener, and then losing left tackle Isaiah Wynn in Week 2 for half of the season. Key snaps on the offensive line were taken on the interior by Ted Karras and James Ferentz, who had a combined five NFL starts prior to this season. At the tackle spot, Marshall Newhouse, who was out of football after kicking around as a backup for Buffalo and Carolina last year, was called upon to take over 63 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
Throw in a 38-year-old tight end coming out of retirement to try to replace the most dominant tight end in NFL history, plus 415 snaps for undrafted rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers, a choppy cycle of Josh Gordon coming in and out and Mohamed Sanu joining midseason, as well as the efforts to integrate undrafted free agents Gunner Olszewski and Jakob Johnson, and the offense really was doomed from the jump.
Now, after a disappointing end to the year, Brady is bearing the brunt of the blame, because that’s generally what happens with quarterbacks.
Yet if you watched Brady bounce around to avoid pressure before casually delivering strikes into non-existent passing windows in the 17th game of the year, outdoors in January, while dealing with two injuries …
… or firing bullets through traffic …
… or throwing heaters like this one in late December …
… then you know that the Greatest Of All Time is still capable of having a GOAT-worthy season. He just needs a slightly better situation than the one he was given this year.
All of which finally brings us to the future.
Assuming Brady doesn’t take a trip with Gisele to ride horseback on a beach and quite literally ride off into the sunset, the quarterback will take his next NFL snap at the ripe age of 43 years old. And it’s there — not in the stats or the playoff loss or some of his more puzzling passes this season — where the matter gets complicated for Brady, the Patriots, and any other NFL team that wants to take a shot at signing the best to ever play.
The fact is, there’s just no precedent at all when it comes to an NFL quarterback at age 43.
The other fact is that Brady has redefined the possibilities of what an NFL quarterback can be at age 38, and at age 39, and at age 40, and at age 41, and yes, even at age 42. He wasn’t supposed to succeed so late in his career because nobody had ever succeeded to such a degree at such ages. Brady has proven beyond any doubt that he is the exception to the rule.
And as he gets older, the precedent for quarterbacks performing at his age becomes more and more scarce. For 43-year-olds, it’s pretty much nonexistent.
At age 43, Vinny Testaverde was Brady’s backup, way back in 2006. Testaverde got into three games, throwing just three passes (but chucking a touchdown in the final two minutes of the season). Testaverde played the next season for Carolina, and he actually got six starts, but he threw five touchdowns and six picks with a 65.8 passer rating in what was his final NFL season.
Doug Flutie was also a backup to Brady when he was 43 years old, and he threw a whopping 10 passes, completing five of them for 29 yards. He started zero games. That would be his final NFL job.
Warren Moon gave it a go as a 43-year-old in 1999, but he only got in for one game, going 1-for-3 for 20 yards. He’d suit up the next year for two games, starting once, completing 15 of 34 passes for 208 yards with one touchdown and one pick in his final NFL season.
Hall of Famer George Blanda famously lasted in the NFL until age 48, though he was primarily a kicker after his age 39 season. At age 43, he thre 55 total passes, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. His final start as a quarterback came at age 41. Blanda threw 58 passes as a 44-year-old and then just 22 total passes over his final four seasons.
Steve DeBerg didn’t play at age 43, but he did when he was 44; he started one game and went 30-for-59 during the 1998 season for Atlanta, five years after retiring.
And that’s it. There’s your history of 43-year-old quarterbacks, and even then, it’s a stretch. Testaverde turned 43 years old during Week 11 in 2006, Moon turned 43 during Week 11 in ’99. Flutie turned 43 during the Week 7 bye in 2005.
Brady playing in 2020 would be a true age-43 season, with his birthday coming during training camp every season. And though he’s now defied age and shattered expectations for five years running, he still has to hit a physical downswing at some point. The trick for the Patriots and the rest of the NFL right now is trying to determine when that day will come.
Brady made $23 million in 2019, and he carried the 11th-highest cap hit at the quarterback position in the NFL. Given the way he performed, and given the way he appeared physically, the Patriots likely wouldn’t be too wary to bring him back for 2020 at roughly that same price.
The question at that point becomes whether or not another team out there will look at all of those factors and add in the allure of adding “TOM BRADY” to the marquee outside the stadium. That team would also be in need of a quarterback, and that team would also need a decent amount of cap space in order to entice Brady for a change of scenery. Surely, if the difference between the Patriots’ offer and Team X’s offer was only a few million dollars, it probably wouldn’t be enough for Brady to feel compelled to uproot his life and career. A pay raise in the range of, say, $9 million, guaranteed over two seasons? That could do the trick.
There may not be too many teams that fit that bill, but there are some. The Chargers are moving into a massive new stadium and appear poised to move on from Philip Rivers; if they don’t have a QB of the future in mind, two years of Brady could be perfect. The Raiders, likewise, are on the move, and if Jon Gruden is officially out on Derek Carr, there’d certainly be an appeal to lure Brady to Vegas.
The Dolphins looked like a dark horse for Brady … until they fired former Pats coach Chad O’Shea and then hired Chan Gailey as their offensive coordinator. Miami appears content to roll with … Ryan Fitzpatrick.
There could always be a mystery team, but regardless, despite Brady being Brady, the market will likely be limited.
From a team’s perspective, guaranteeing anything sight unseen for Brady beyond 2020 would be imprudent, if history is the guide. Football teams — even the New England Patriots — have to be doubtful that anyone can last as an NFL quarterback that deep into middle age.
On the flip side, Brady is not at all wrong to feel as though he deserves guarantees for two years. He’s proven history wrong year after year after year, and after being forced to play a nationally televised game this season with just one offensive package, and after being handed (proverbial) chicken-bleep and being told go out and win a Super Bowl … he’d be right to have some expectations and demands about his football team in 2020, whether that’s in Foxboro or anywhere else.
All of that, when considered as a whole, is the reason for all of this mystique and intrigue with regard to the future of the best quarterback in history. By most any rational measure, he should be just about done. His body of work through three years in his fifth decade on the planet says otherwise.
Can that defiance of history continue for another year? Can it stretch to two years?
Those are the questions that the Patriots — and any other interested party — has to try to answer in the coming weeks. There’s no right answer, per se, but there will certainly be a wrong one. The key will just depend on how much faith a team is willing to invest in the unimaginable.