Tom Brady turned 36 Saturday, and while there has been some question as to whether or not the Patriots are putting too much on his shoulders this season with such dramatic turnover at the wide receiver spot, history tells us that no matter the personnel, some of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game have saved their best football for their late 30s. Brady already has become the best thirtysomething quarterback of all time, but here are 10 quarterbacks he can look at for inspiration when it comes to reaching new heights after the age of 35.
Favre, who threw for 4,088 yards and 30 touchdowns and completed 64 percent of his passes at the age of 35 in 2004, might provide a positive template for Brady this year -- as in Brady's case, that offseason there was plenty of uncertainty in regard to the Green Bay passing game. But Javon Walker doubled his output from the previous season and ended 2004 with 89 catches, 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns (all career highs), while Donald Driver made the leap to elite status, posting the first of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (that year, he had 1,208 receiving yards and 84 catches, both career bests at the time). That Green Bay team finished 10-6 and lost a divisional playoff game to visiting Minnesota, 31-17.
While Warren Moon's post-35 numbers are more impressive when taken in totality, Favre was the most well known, with his 2009 campaign in Minnesota serving as the best example. That season, he threw for 33 touchdowns with only seven picks, and he set a career high with a passer rating of 107.2 -- the only 100 passer rating of his career. That was, of course, before he threw the pick that ended the Vikings' season against the Saints in the NFC title game.
Moon could be one of the most underrated passers in the history of the game. Part of it is because he managed to stick around so long, playing until the age of 44. (To be fair, he didn't throw his first pass in the NFL until the age of 28 because he was consigned to the CFL out of college.) His numbers from age 34 to 39 were remarkable -- in those six seasons, he threw for 23,877 yards, completing 62 percent of his passes and 146 touchdown passes. That includes a phenomenal year with the 1995 Vikings: At the age of 39, Moon completed 377 passes -- 62 percent of his throws -- and had 33 touchdowns vs. 14 interceptions.
However, his finest 35-plus year likely came in 1992: At the age of 35 with the Oilers, Moon went 404-for-655 (62 percent) for a career-high 4,690 passing yards. That offense had two receivers top 1,000 yards (Haywood Jeffries and Drew Hill) and a third finish with 996 yards (Ernest Givins). One of the better defensive teams in the league, Houston finished the season 11-5 and lost to the Broncos in the divisional playoffs, 26-24.
Staubach is a bit of a forgotten presence on this list, but he certainly aged well, going to back-to-back Super Bowls at age 35 and 36 with Dallas. He is one of four quarterbacks on this list to win a Super Bowl after the age of 35, as he helped the Cowboys past the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. That 1977 season, he led the NFC in passer rating, completed 58 percent of his passes and finished third in the league with 18 touchdowns. The following year the Cowboys lost Super Bowl XIII to the Steelers, but the 36-year-old Staubach still led the NFL in passing. And at the age of 37, Staubach set career highs in passing yards (3,586) and touchdowns (27), while leading the NFL with a 92.3 passer rating. There are some similarities to Brady here in that Staubach was in the same system with the same coach for a number of years.
In 1995 with Denver at the age of 35, Elway threw 26 touchdown passes on the way to a 3,970-yard campaign, his second-highest total ever. Elway posted those numbers with a great tight end (Shannon Sharpe) and little else, as Denver finished 8-8 that season. At this point, even though his post-35 numbers weren't as flashy as Moon or Favre, Brady would gladly take Elway's career arc for several reasons, not the least of which includes the the back-to-back Super Bowl titles he won at age 37 and 38 with Denver -- he's the second guy on this list to win a Super Bowl after the age of 35.
A bit of a football nomad who started his career as the No. 1 pick of the Patriots in 1971, Plunkett had the best year of his career as a 36-year-old with the Raiders in 1983, leading Los Angeles to a win over the Redskins in the Super Bowl and becoming the third signal-caller on our list to win a Super Bowl after the age of 35. That season, Plunkett completed 61 percent of his passes and threw for 2,935 yards and 20 touchdowns (both career highs). A smart, veteran team, the Raiders got big seasons from running back Marcus Allen (1,014 yards rushing and 68 catches for 590 yards) and Howie Long (13 sacks). Allen really carried the team through the postseason -- in three playoff games Allen had 486 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. (That included 368 yards on 58 carries.)
One of the most famous quarterbacks of them all, Unitas (and backup Earl Morrall) led the Colts to Super Bowl V at the age of 37. (He's the fourth quarterback on our list to win a ring after the age of 35.) The 1970 season wasn't one of his finest years, but Unitas completed 52 percent of his passes for 2,213 yards, to go along with 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. (Eddie Hinton and Roy Jefferson both finished with more than 700 yards receiving to lead the Baltimore passing game, while legendary tight end John Mackey added 28 catches for 435 yards.)
Marino faced a lot of changes in personnel late in his career -- things were almost completely overhauled in Miami from 1995 through 1997, including a change in coach (Don Shula to Jimmy Johnson). While his teams struggled to find a new offensive identity (Johnson insisted on running the ball more often, which took passing opportunities away from Marino), the quarterback maintained a high level of play, even after he passed the age of 35. At 36, he finished third in the NFL in passing yards (3,780). At 37 he was seventh in touchdowns (23) and passing yards (3,497).
Montana certainly would provide an excellent template for success for any quarterback over the age of 35, but given the fact that Brady has always had a thing for his childhood hero, you have to think the Patriots quarterback has already examined Montana's career arc. Everyone knows about Montana's work with the Niners, but he was impressive as a near 40-year-old in Kansas City. In 1993 and 1994 with the Chiefs -- at the age of 37 and 38, and after spending almost all of 1992 out of the game -- he completed more that 60 percent of his passes, had a combined 5,427 yards passing, and posted a 29:16 TD-to-interception ratio in two seasons.
While Montana couldn't replicate the Super Bowl heroics he produced in San Francisco, it remains remarkable to think that a 37-year-old Montana led the Chiefs to the AFC title game in 1993, when they lost to the Bills.
Tarkenton was a lot like Moon in that he had a late-career statistical boom, particularly when he hit 35. He had some crazy numbers late in his career. At the age of 35 with the Vikings in 1975, he led the league in attempts (273), completions (425), completion percentage (64) and touchdown passes (25), which was good enough to win him an MVP. (The Vikings finished the season 12-2 but lost to Staubach and the Cowboys in a divisional playoff game.) Then, Tarkenton rebounded from an injury-plagued year to lead the league in attempts (345), completions (572) and passing yards (3,468) in his final year in the league at age 38.
After 35, Warner enjoyed a career renaissance in the desert with the Cardinals, lifting Arizona out of the doldrums to its only Super Bowl appearance. Warner had an amazing stretch in his last two seasons in the league (2008 and '09). At the age of 37 and 38, he combined to throw for 56 touchdowns and 8,336 passing yards while completing 67 percent of his passes. (Those numbers compare favorably to his heyday in St. Louis when he helped the Rams to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.)