Tom Brady is old. This is not up for debate. The New England Patriots drafted their quarterback 19 years ago, and Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers marks their 16th playoff appearance in that period.
At 41 years of age, there are only two players in the entire league older than Brady. Both are kickers. One looks like this.
What is up for debate is just how much Brady’s age has been affecting his play. He threw fewer touchdowns (29) and more interceptions (11) than he has in any season since 2013. And according to advanced statistics—things like “completed air yards,” “intended air yards,” and “air yards to the sticks”—the quarterback attempted shorter and safer passes this year than a great majority of his peers. The NFL calls these “Next Gen Stats” but Brady’s metrics look more like “Greatest Generation Stats.” Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier cited these numbers this week to argue that “[Brady] has reached the point where the Patriots offense is built more to compensate for his weaknesses than to rely on his strengths.” Those in New England, meanwhile, have a slightly different take.
Although it’s inarguable that the Patriots dinked and dunked their way through 2018, the quarterback may not have had much choice. Rob Gronkowski has long been Brady’s preferred deep target, but the injury-ravaged tight end can barely get open and is more orthopedic brace than man at this point. Josh Gordon was a legitimate vertical threat, but he left the team after just 11 games as a consequence of his latest suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Brady’s top target this year: James White, a running back.
But while Brady didn’t set the league aflame this season, he did play well enough to secure yet another postseason bye. The last time the Patriots had to slum it with the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds on Wild Card Weekend was in 2009, 10 days before Barack Obama’s first inauguration. By hook or by crook—or by dink or by dunk—Brady needs to win just two games to make the Super Bowl and have a chance at his sixth ring.
Don’t get me wrong—there were times this season when Brady looked flat-out ancient, like when he couldn’t muster the strength to get the ball out of bounds against the Pittsburgh Steelers and instead threw it into a defender’s arms.
Tempting as it may be to point and laugh at this noodle-armed Methuselah, we should keep in mind that the man is less than a year removed from the best statistical performance of his career. Brady threw for 505 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions in Super Bowl LII, remember? It was the same game when he whiffed a catch in the open field and tumbled like he was in a Life Alert commercial.
Funny, sure, but this just proves that he can play well even if it looks as if he’s about to break his hip at any moment. For someone as results-obsessed as Brady, there is no such thing as “too old,” and there is no point in holding him up to the eye test. This is a man who believes he can prevent sunburns by drinking water—do you really think he’s going to stop playing football if he keeps winning games?
It’s rather difficult to determine the exact age of a Galapagos tortoise. Concentric circles on its carapace can provide hints, though these markings vary depending on the tortoise’s nutritional intake. Such is the challenge of properly understanding Tom Brady. Question his longevity, and New England fans will bluntly implore you to “count the rings.” Extended observation is the best method, but the animal will almost certainly outlive anyone who tries to track its decades-long routine of laborious overland migration and leafy-green intake. I’m not entirely sure whether I’m talking about Brady or the turtle anymore. Does it even matter?