The New England Patriots face a lot of questions when it comes to their offense. Who will start at quarterback isn’t one of them. In 2019, Tom Brady will continue his seemingly eternal quest to stave off the hands of time. The odds are forever against Brady, as Father Time remains undefeated. However, whether it’s specific shades of tomatoes or some extra pliability causing this, Brady is giving the inevitable decline the biggest Heisman stiff arm we have ever seen.
While this is the latest installment in our series looking at the Patriots roster heading into 2019, you didn’t come here to read about how Brian Hoyer is a reliable backup should an injury strike ole TB12. You want to know if there is any way in which Brady can continue to play at such a high level as he progresses into his 40’s.
While we do our best here at PFN to be as informative as possible, none of us have a crystal ball. Brady’s range of outcomes in 2019 span from him winning his 4th MVP award to falling off a cliff without notice. This level of play at his age is unprecedented. There aren’t many historical comparisons we can point to for some sense of how to project his on-field performance moving forward for New England. All we can do is work with what we have.
2019 is going to be Brady’s age 42 season. Since the merger, only four quarterbacks have played a season in their 40’s and attempted at least 300 passes; Brady (twice), Brett Favre (twice), Warren Moon, and Vinny Testaverde. Drew Brees, presumably, will join the group by season’s end. While the ability to which each QB played during their 40’s does contain variance, there is one common through line: No one has fared well in their age 42 season.
It is a tiny sample size. Only Moon has played his age 42 season and attempted at least 200 passes. Testaverde, who had somewhat of a bounce-back year at 41 years old, had a dreadful age 42 campaign. He only threw 106 pass attempts.
This is 40
The notable quarterbacks we can examine that made it into their 40’s are Moon, Favre, and Testaverde. The stats that follow are not the end all, be all, but they do paint a decent picture of how each QB played as they moved through the twilight of their careers. Brady is included for comparison.
Favre fell off a cliff in his final season. His three-year aggregate AV prior to his last campaign is 44. This is also perfectly in line with Brady’s total AV over the past three seasons, which is 46. In this comparison, Brady is a year older than Favre was during these time frames. You can interpret this both as a positive sign that Brady is aging better than Favre, or a cautionary tale that impending doom is just around the corner.
Moon alternated good and bad seasons in his last four years. For what it’s worth, the bad seasons did happen on smaller sample sizes. As eluded to above, Testaverde had a bit of a bounce-back season at age 41. After appearing in just 12 games combined in his age 39 and 40 seasons, Testaverde came back to throw for 3,532 yards and 17 touchdowns at the ripe old age of 41. The following year, at age 42, he was disastrous on 106 attempts.
While we don’t know what Brady will be in 2019, we can confidently conclude he has played at a higher level at these ages than any quarterback in National Football League history. If you’re into counting stats, Brady just rewrote the record book for a 41-year-old signal caller. And while 39 isn’t 40, Brady posted the highest ANY/A+ by an age 39 quarterback since the merger with at least 300 pass attempts. His ranking at age 40 by that criteria is second (out of two) behind Favre, and first (among four) at age 41. It is also true that Brady had the best passing performance in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles, at the age of 40.
Despite the earlier reference to Favre falling off a cliff above, the “quarterbacks fall off a cliff without warning” narrative seems to be more narrative than an actual substantive data point. Joe Montana was perfectly fine through two seasons in Kansas City. John Elway was functionally the same QB in each of his final four seasons. Similarly, Kurt Warner was essentially the same guy in each of his final three seasons. All of these quarterbacks walked away before we watched them hopelessly chase the Road Runner over the cliff.
But we do remember the extreme cases that unfolded before our eyes. After MVP caliber seasons, both Favre and Peyton Manning gritted out an injury-plagued final chapter before calling it quits. Manning’s play was so poor that he was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler for seven games in the middle of the season.
Dan Marino is an interesting case as he didn’t so much fall off a cliff as he steadily declined as you would expect any other position.
By the end, he wasn’t too great.
What we must keep in mind, however, is that Brady is in uncharted territory. Despite all these comparisons, none of the quarterbacks touched upon in this section made it to their age 42 season. So while some fell off the cliff and some walked away before doing so, none of them attempted to extend their career to where Brady is now.
The lone contemporary
We talked about Brees earlier. We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the fact Brees’ three seasons leading up to 2019 also show no decline in on-field performance.
40 isn’t 42, but both of these quarterbacks continue to be present in the annual MVP conversation. We’ve spent the majority of this article trying to determine what the past can tell us about Brady’s immediate future. Perhaps the present is a better indicator.
Brees, along with Philip Rivers (37), Ben Roethlisberger (36), and Aaron Rodgers (35) all continue to be upper echelon quarterbacks on a yearly basis. You can reasonably argue the latter three are too young to be approaching the cliff in the modern era, but they are at least other quarterbacks that aren’t showing signs of slowing down as they inch closer to 40. The trio, along with Brees, suggests we’re in a new age of QB longevity, and Brady is more the poster boy for the new era, as opposed to a massive historical outlier.
On second thought, he’s both. The two distinctions don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
Signs of slowing down?
At a high level, Brady’s recent stats don’t indicate he is getting any worse. His yards, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, interception rate, and completion percentage in 2018 were all in line with his career norms. Furthermore, he was still atop the leader board in all of the major advanced QB metrics.
By any measure, Brady was a top ten QB in 2018. This is good. There is also a nerve-racking similarity here to how Manning’s career wound down. Brady was league MVP in 2017, and then a top ten quarterback, as illustrated above, in 2018. In 2013, Manning rewrote the single-season passing record book on his way to league MVP. Let’s see how he fared in 2014 by the same five advanced QB metrics.
Following his 2013 MVP campaign, Manning was a top ten QB by any advanced measure the next season. One year later, Manning fell off the cliff. This is why the narrative exists. Sometimes a lack of declining isn’t an indicator that the end isn’t far.
Prognosticating how Brady will play in 2019 is a fool’s errand. No one knows. There is no pure historical comparison. Even if there were, everyone’s body ages differently. The range of outcomes here is vast and wide.
That being said, the Patriots offense does figure to look much different this coming season. Rob Gronkowski retired and the tight end position is a problem without a solution. The current slate of receivers is a mixed bag of mostly question marks. There is some evidence that New England wants to become more of a power running team.
The only thing we know for certain is that Brady is going to keep to some psychotically strict diet and work harder than anyone else in the room. How that manifests itself on Sunday afternoons is anyone’s guess. The Patriots odds of repeating as Super Bowl Champions live and die with Brady. Regardless of how viable a backup Hoyer may be, or how much upside Jarrett Stidham may possess, New England is one injury to an old man away from having no realistic chance to defend their crown.
Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the New England Patriots. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.