FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Hours before the Bills faced the Patriots here Monday night, sources told me the NFL was looking into allegations that Tom Brady was cheating Father Time.
Seriously, Brady has to be up to something. It’s impossible for the guy to be playing this well at such an advanced age. He’s 38 years old, an age when most NFL quarterbacks are either retired or contemplating their creeping athletic mortality, like his nemesis, Peyton Manning.
A year ago, when Brady was asked what it would mean to win another Super Bowl at this stage of his career, he became indignant.
“What does that mean?” he said. “What stage are you talking about?” He rejected the notion that he was in the twilight of his career.
He won a fourth Super Bowl and he hasn’t let up. One year after critics were writing him off, months after the Deflategate scandal left people questioning his legacy, Brady is having one of the best years of his life and bolstering his case as the greatest quarterback ever to play.
Heading into Week 11, Brady led the league in passing yards (3,043), touchdowns (24) and QB rating (111.1). He’s on pace for a career-high 5,410 passing yards, within range of Manning’s record of 5,477 set two years ago. Oh, and the Pats are unbeaten at 9-0.
Bills coach Rex Ryan jokes about Brady defying the advances of age. Ryan has been dealing with Brady for seven years as a head coach. He sees no decline from what he saw five or six years ago.
“I haven’t seen that,” Ryan added. “Oh, I’ve seen a gray hair in his head. You’re going to go gray, pal, one of these days! I don’t know what’s driving him. He’s got all the rings, he’s got all this stuff, but there’s something internal that drives that guy.
“And he’s in phenomenal shape. This might be as good a shape as he’s been in. Maybe when you get up in age, you have to be in great shape. But he’s moving well and his accuracy is like crazy.”
Yes, Brady’s 67.8 percent completion rate is also a career high. He has thrown three interceptions. It might be outlandish to suggest he’s still getting better at his age. But he’s as good as ever. He shows no sign of hitting the wall that confronts many quarterbacks.
Historically, age 38 has been the wall for a lot of the game’s greats. Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, Kurt Warner and John Elway all retired at 38. As Brady is well aware, Elway retired after becoming the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at 38.
There are two chief outliers to the trend against older QBs excelling after age 38. Brett Favre had 4,202 yards and 33 TDs for the Vikings at age 40. Warren Moon passed for 4,228 yards and 33 TDs for the Vikings at age 39 and threw for 3,678 yards for the Seahawks at 41.
Last year, Brady said he could play five more years. That would make him 42 in his final season. If he stays healthy, it’s not out of the question. He hasn’t missed a game since his knee injury in 2008. If he played that long, he could pass Manning on the all-time list for yards and TDs.
Rich Gannon thinks it could happen. Gannon, an analyst for CBS Sports and Sirius XM NFL radio, won the league MVP award in 2002 and was the sixth-oldest to start a Super Bowl at 37. He’s a student of quarterback play and marvels at what Brady has accomplished.
“I was in New England in Week Two and Week Three,” Gannon said. “I watched a lot of tape and I went to practice. I think he’s throwing the ball better than he ever has. When you see a guy function at this age, playing this well, why can’t he do it two years from now, or four years from now?”
Gannon said Brady has been fortunate to play under one coach (Bill Belichick), in one offensive system for his entire career. He said that has also helped Brady to remain healthy in a brutal sport.
“If you understand the protections and the defense, and you understand where your quick-answer throws are, and everybody is on the same page, the quarterback’s not going to get hit as much,” Gannon said. “It’s very, very, very rare to put the tape on and see him get surprised by something defensively.
“He doesn’t take unnecessary hits. He gets the ball out quick. He’s kind of a master. It has a lot to do with the fact he’s still healthy and upright after all these years.”
Brady’s ability to extend his prime is also due to his willingness to adopt unconventional training methods. His best friend, Alex Guerrero, is an all-purpose health guru who serves as his trainer, massage therapist, nutritional adviser and mind coach. Guerrero is godfather to Brady’s youngest son.
According to a New York Times Magazine profile that ran the day of the last Super Bowl, titled “Tom Brady Cannot Stop,” he and Guerrero train twice a day during the season on Brady’s legs and arm. Brady has also worked with Tom House, the former MLB pitcher who is an expert on throwing mechanics. House was an adviser to Nolan Ryan, who pitched in the big leagues until he was 46.
“I think he’s different from a lot of guys in how he takes care of himself in the offseason,” Gannon said of Brady. “I think most important is how he takes care of his arm. He really understands the functionality of the throwing motion. He takes great care of his rotator cuff.
“He takes great care of his core, his legs, his strength. It all contributes to his ability to throw the football. He always throws from a balanced position, in great rhythm. There’s not a throw on the field he can’t make.”
Maybe Brady has been lucky and will hit the wall suddenly, the way Manning has. Maybe he’s done it by cheating. It’s understandable, in light of Spygate and Deflategate, if rival fans choose to believe it’s bending the rules that sustained his greatness, rather than his fanatical drive to be the best.
“I wouldn’t use the word comical,” Gannon said of Deflategate, “but I would say most people around the game think it’s a non-issue.”
Gannon doesn’t believe the NFL investigation and Brady’s four-game suspension, which he beat on appeal, are giving the Pats extra motivation. But it sure seems like some Revenge Tour, reminiscent of when they went 16-0 in the regular season after the Spygate scandal.
“I don’t think the Pats needed motivation,” Gannon said. “They’re supremely motivated to be the best ever. I do know this: When you have a quarterback who’s so special, so unique, one of the greatest who ever played and who is so demanding of teammates, as he should be, you don’t want to let him down.”
Whatever the reason, Brady is having one of his best seasons, while most of the league’s other older QBs struggle.
Manning is a mess. Rodgers’ offense leads the league in three-and-outs. Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are putting up numbers for losing teams.
Ryan was expected to be the long-awaited answer for Brady. His Jets teams were better at defending Brady than any other team in 2013-14. Then Brady broke the record for passing yards by a Bills opponent in the first meeting. On Monday night, Ryan gets another chance to make him look his age.
The odds say the Bills will do a much better job in the second meeting. Brady will be without Julian Edelman, and the Buffalo pass defense has improved since September. But after all these years, the Pats remain kings. Ryan even conceded that they’ll win the division again.
For 15 years, Bills fans have looked forward to the day when Brady would be gone, or slipping into decline. That day doesn’t appear to be coming soon. Imagine if Brady plays four more years at a high level. That would parallel the remaining four years of Rex’s contract.
It’s scary for Bills fans to contemplate, but Ryan might be chasing Brady for the rest of his days here. If he’s waiting for Brady to turn gray, he could be in a long wait.