With Tom Brady ostensibly on the back nine of his career, he uttered a telling statement earlier this spring when he told Peter King, “You don’t have to suck when you get older.”
Father Time remains undefeated, but Brady -- who will turn 37 in August -- explained there are ways to keep him at bay, at least for a few years.
”It’s hard to explain this to people, but the commitment I make, in terms of keeping my body in shape and my nutrition right, should make me healthy,” Brady said. “I feel better today than when I was 25, and I know that’s hard for people to believe, but I do. I work at it. Basically, I work all offseason to prepare my body to not get hurt. I can’t help the team if I’m on the sidelines. I’ve got to be durable.”
While the game is littered with signal-callers over the age of 35 struggling on their way out the door, history has several examples of quarterbacks who are Hall of Famers, futures Hall of Famers or at least ones who are part of the discussion who haven’t sucked late in their careers. Here are some recent cases of quarterbacks playing into their 30s and 40s, how they did within the context of the team, and why they were successful.
• Brady has to look no further than his contemporary Peyton Manning as an example of life beginning at 35. In his last two seasons with the Broncos (at ages 36 and 37), Manning completed at least 400 passes and at least 68 percent of his passes in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career. He set career-best marks for passing yards (5,477), average passing yards per game (342) and touchdowns (55) last year at the age of 37. In addition, his passer rating from last year (115.1) was the highest single-season mark in the history of the NFL for a quarterback 35 or older. His postseason woes still dog him, but Manning has few peers when it comes to being able to play the game at a high level into his late 30s.
• Warren Moon played his best football between the ages of 35 and 40, when he averaged nearly 10 wins a season as a starter for the Oilers and Vikings and set personal highs for completions (404 in 1991 at the age of 35) and completion rate (65 percent in 1992 at the age of 36) and tied a career-high in touchdown passes (33 in 1995 for Minnesota at age of 39). He played until he was 44, but he had his last truly impactful season at the age of 42. In 1998 he started 10 games for the Seahawks, leading them to a 4-6 mark while throwing for 1,632 yards. In addition, he completed 56 percent of his passes and recorded 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. (That Seattle team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.)
• While he won MVPs and a Super Bowl in his 30s, Brett Favre had one of the best seasons of any 40-year-old quarterback of all time. Favre, who was a punchline for much of his late 30s, underwent a statistical renaissance in his first season with the Vikings, leading them to the NFC title game. Along the way, he had a career-best 68 percent completion rate, 3,472 passing yards and 33 touchdowns with eight interceptions. In truth, Favre’s ill-advised pick in that NFC title game against the Saints was the beginning of the end. The 2010 season marked his last year in the NFL at the age of 41, and while he was OK -- 5-8 mark as a starter, 61 percent completion rate, 2,509 passing yards -- he had 11 touchdowns and 19 picks.
• Joe Montana’s history gives you some idea of just how transitory it all is, especially for a quarterback in the latter stages of a legendary career. At the age of 34, Montana led San Francisco to a 14-1 regular-season mark and the 1990 NFC title game, and the Niners appeared to be on their way to a third straight Super Bowl. But New York’s Leonard Marshall landed a crushing blow on Montana in that contest, injuring his elbow and forcing Montana to miss almost two full seasons along the way. By the time he had healed, Steve Young had become entrenched as the starter, and Montana ended up playing the last two years of his career (1993-94) with the Chiefs, retiring at the age of 38 after a playoff loss to Miami.
• Kurt Warner had an impressive final act with the Cardinals, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2008 and a playoff appearance against the Saints in 2009. His best year in Arizona came at the age of 37, when he completed 67 percent of his passes, threw for 4,583 yards (second most in his career), and recorded 30 touchdown passes and just 14 picks on the way to a loss against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. He retired after the 2009 season at the age of 38.
• John Elway is probably Brady’s most favorable template. He wasn’t able to fling the ball consistently like he did in his youth, but Elway in the late 1990s was the very model of what a good, steady veteran quarterback should be. He had relatively modest numbers -- after setting career-highs for completions (348), completion rate (63.2) and passing yards (4,030) at age 33 in 1993, he never hit those sorts of numbers again. But in his late 30s, he was content to ride the wave of a rushing renaissance with the Broncos (more on that later), and when he did throw the ball, he did just enough not to screw things up, maintaining a nearly perfect 2-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last four seasons in the league. That paid off with Super Bowl wins in his last two seasons (ages 37 and 38).
What have these seasons taught us? Fundamentally, there are three ways to keep any elite quarterback playing well into his late 30s and early 40s.
1. Have at least one superlative offensive skill position player, either at running back or wide receiver.
In 2009, Favre had Adrian Peterson, who ran for 1,383 yards and 18 touchdowns. (While it wasn’t comparable to his 2,097 rushing yards from 2012, it still was good enough for fifth in the league.) Favre also had a pair of really impressive young receivers in Sidney Rice (83 catches, 1,312 yards) and Percy Harvin (60 catches, 790 yards).
In the late 1990s Elway had Terrell Davis as his lead back, and it was Davis -- more than any other offensive skill position player on the roster -- who was responsible for the success of that offense. In one extraordinary three-year run (1996-98) he had 345, 369 and 392 rushing attempts. Add in the postseason performance -- 204 carries in eight playoff games in that three-year stretch -- and you have 1,310 rushing attempts in three years, an average of 437 carries a season. As a result, following his 2,008 yards in 1998, Davis had a combined 1,194 rushing yards over the next three seasons, the last three of his career.
Meanwhile, Warner had three pass-catchers who finished the 2008 season with at least 1,000 yards, including Larry Fitzgerald, who had at least 1,400 yards receiving in two of the five years Warner served as the Cardinals quarterback. (That includes a career-best 1,431 yards in 2008, Arizona’s Super Bowl season.) Moon was surrounded by offensive stars with the Oilers and Vikings, none more impressive than Cris Carter, who had back-to-back 122-catch seasons when Moon was 38 and 39 years old.
Montana? All he had at his disposal was Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver of all time. Rice was in the midst of a run in which he had at least 80 catches, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns every year for eight straight years.
2. Stay healthy.
In 1998 Moon played 10 games at the age of 42. Warner missed two games over his last three seasons (ages 36-38). Elway missed four games over the last four years of his career (1995-99). And Favre played every game possible between the ages of 35 and 40, and missed only three games over the course of his final season at the age of 41. You need talent, but you also need some luck when it comes to staying healthy as well.
3. Invest in defense ... or play very well in the postseason.
Favre’s 2009 Vikings were in the top 10 in most every major defensive category, including average points allowed, run defense, yards allowed per game and total yards allowed. Elway’s Denver teams from 1996 through 1998 were similarly stout against the run, as well as average points allowed per game. Although both of those teams had their issues when it came to pass defense, that could be because they were frequently holding a lead, so their opponents simply had to pass the ball more often as a result. And Montana’s teams were always at or near the top of the league when it came to defensive metrics.
The one team that might go against the grain in this respect are Warner’s Arizona teams. Never known as having a great defensive grouping, those Cardinals teams were involved in some memorable shootouts. It also can’t be overlooked that while Warner’s regular-season stats that year were very good, Warner had a really terrific postseason, maybe one of the best of any quarterback over the age of 35. In four playoff games that year, he went 92-for-135 -- a sterling 68 percent completion rate -- for 1,147 yards, with 11 touchdowns and just three picks. That included a Super Bowl in which he went 31-for-43 (72 percent completion rate) for 377 yards and three touchdowns with one interception against the best defense in the league in Pittsburgh on the biggest stage.
How does all this relate back to Brady? Well, the quarterback has been able to stay healthy -- with the exception of his lost 2008 season, he’s started every game for New England since September 2001. In addition, the Patriots have managed to invest heavily in defense the last two seasons, as almost all their big-ticket free agent items (namely Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner) have been on the defensive side of the ball. One area where the current Patriots might be lacking? By the looks of the current roster, the transcendent offensive skill position player -- someone along the lines of a Randy Moss -- isn’t there. While that’s not to say that there isn’t someone on the current roster who could emerge as that sort of option, it’s still an area of differentiation. (One alert Tweeter indicated that if he stays healthy, Rob Gronkowski could become that elite-level talent, a great point.)
Ultimately, to Brady’s point, you don’t have to suck when you get older. It’s just that sometimes the team (and the quarterback) needs to recognize that you probably need a little more help than you had when you were in your 20s. For a quarterback over 35 to win a Super Bowl, it represents an awesome challenge -- there’s a reason only four other quarterbacks have won Super Bowls after their 35th birthday: Johnny Unitas (37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V), Roger Staubach (35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII), Jim Plunkett (36 when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII) and Elway (he was 37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII). As a result, if Brady is going to play -- and play at a high level -- well into his late 30s and early 40s, history tells us that it could necessitate a slight tweak when it comes to the Patriots’ traditional team-building approach. But in the end, those alterations could mean the difference between the quarterback ending his career with either three or four rings.