ATLANTA -- The conversation starts with Tom Brady’s age, with how incredibly well his body treats him at 41. Sure, the physical aspect matters, because he’s a professional athlete playing a game that has chewed up and spit out countless humans, most before they’re out of their 20s.
The fact Brady’s still the starting quarterback for any NFL team, let alone that perpetual juggernaut known as the New England Patriots, makes him a wonder. The fact he’s still excelling to the level that has unquestionably made him the greatest QB of them all is flat-out insane.
“He’s playing like he’s 30, which is incredible,” former NFL quarterback and CBS studio analyst Boomer Esiason said during a news conference promoting the network’s coverage of Super Bowl LIII between the Pats and the Los Angeles Rams.
But to discuss why Brady is here, preparing for his ninth Super Bowl and seeking his sixth win in the big game, you have to go above the shoulder pads.
It isn’t simply a matter of his thorough understanding of the game or his ability to instantly recognize and, if necessary, adjust to whatever the defense is showing. That has long been a given. The quality that has endured is Brady’s unwavering concentration -- his unparalleled focus before, during and between games, as well as between seasons.
That, above all, is what puts him in a separate universe.
Keep hitting him with your best shots. Call him too old. Call him a cheater. Call him every nasty name Buffalo Bills fans have spewed in his direction at New Era Field for years. None of it matters.
“The thing that we all marvel at is that he's not distracted,” Esiason said. “He's not distracted by being married to one of the most beautiful women in the world (model Gisele Bündchen) and having a beautiful family and being able to fly anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.”
Brady’s mind isn’t on being a mega-celebrity. It’s on being the best quarterback possible. It’s on doing all he can to allow the Patriots to win, because unfortunately for the Bills and the rest of the AFC East and the rest of the NFL, the guy never grows tired of that.
He rejects a staggering number of opportunities to make staggering amounts of money away from the game and put his face in far more places than it can already be seen. Why?
“He is committed to what he's doing,” Esiason said. “There's a real purpose to a legacy that's going to be left and it's going to be impossible to overcome. I don't see any quarterback in the next 50 years even coming close to this.
“When you hear him say, 'We're still here, we're still here,' he's playing with a chip on his shoulder. You see him every now and then, he gets angry on the sideline, starts screaming, well, he's trying to give himself an edge mentally in the game. He's trying to create a fire in his gut to get him going. So I appreciate everything that he tries to do for his team.”
That includes taking good enough care of his body that, despite all of the punishment, it doesn’t let him down. His arm continues to function with its typical magic, something former New York Giants quarterback and CBS studio analyst Phil Simms insists should be a shock despite Brady’s age.
“Throwing a football, it's not like baseball,” Simms said. “You're not going to lose velocity like you would in baseball. It doesn't tear your arm up as much. I've watched Tom Brady and he might say, 'Phil's full of it,' I don't care. He tinkers with his motion, I know he does all the time. Why? Because he's trying to find a way where it feels perfect.”
Brady dealt with what, for him, was significant imperfection for a chunk of the regular season as he dealt with an apparent knee injury. To most of the outside world, it looked as if he were hitting the proverbial wall. His passes didn’t look right, because he was clearly struggling to get the leg drive necessary to deliver them with the sort of velocity needed to deliver at his typically lofty level. That was obvious in both games against the Bills.
As the season progressed, talk escalated about Brady finally being done, about the Patriots’ dynasty finally coming to an end. Rob Gronkowski looked like a stiff-moving shell of himself, and the Patriots, in general, looked more vulnerable than they had in a while.
"I think there were times this year where I'd go, 'Wow! I really see a difference,’ ” Simms said. “He didn't have the power, he wasn't driving through it. He'd throw a wobbly pass every once in a while. A pro quarterback should throw a spiral about 90 percent of the time, and I didn't see that. So I just thought, 'OK, it's caught him.’ ”
That is, until Simms realized that Brady was “nicked up.” That changed his perspective, because Simms also figured once Brady was a bit healthier, it would show in his performance.
“I watched the Jet game, the last game of the year,” Simms said. “He was really sharp. Against Buffalo (a week earlier), he was really rough, but I think that had more to do with Buffalo, because they're really good in pass (defense).”
Brady finished the season with the sort of numbers a quarterback nearly half his age -- say, Josh Allen, for example -- would envy: a completion percentage of 65.8 for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
Then came the playoffs, and Brady was his usual masterful postseason self. In beating the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium and the Chiefs at Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game, he has connected on a staggering 71.1 percent of 90 throws for 691 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
“These last three games, he has been physically as good as he's ever been throwing the ball,” Simms said. “We judge players week-to-week. I watch everybody, and so I see things. But then I find out they were nicked up and I go, 'Wow! I feel bad that I was judging him harshly and he wasn't a hundred percent. Without question, the last three games he's played, I can tell he's a hundred percent by his movement and I can tell by the ball.
"The ball doesn't lie. The ball has got power, it's spinning hard, all those things. Of course, it's accurate, so that tells me everything. His details of throwing the ball correctly have paid off for him playing. And everybody can say whatever they want about this, it's all crap. It's all about throwing the ball. That's why he's still playing at his age.”
And playing well enough to have a shot at winning a sixth Super Bowl.