Tom Brady, you may have heard, is old. Having turned 44 in August, he’s four years shy of being the oldest player in NFL history, but he’s already the oldest quarterback to be this good. Nobody has ever approached his numbers this deep into their 40s, and only Drew Brees, who retired after playing as a 41-year-old last year, has even come close. Brady should not be doing this, most people seem to agree, but here he is, doing it. Brady isn’t better than he was as a Patriot, though you might find a few stray “better than ever” tweets or blog posts about him after any given victory. He’s declined from the height of his powers, sure, but the QB’s decline has not been nearly as dramatic as it by all rights should be for a guy born in 1977.
On Sunday, Brady returns to the place where he won his first six Super Bowls, to face a coach whose relationship with him is either badly deteriorated (per a new book) or “good” (per Bill Belichick himself). The narrative plot lines surrounding the weekend’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers–New England Patriots game will be laid on thick even by the impossibly high standards of NFL agenda-setting, and the game itself should even be pretty good. Belichick squeezed more out of Brady than any coach has ever squeezed out of any player, and more than any coach ever will get out of a sixth-round draft pick. (In case you haven’t heard, Brady didn’t always start at Michigan and was not an early pick. I figured I’d break the news.) But in Brady’s last couple of years in New England, he was something approaching ordinary. By contrast, since arriving Tampa before the 2020 season, he’s staged a revival. So while he is not better than ever, he appears to be doing better at 44 than he was at 41 or 42. How is this even possible?
Brady has helped the Bucs, and they have a Lombardi Trophy to show for it. The Bucs have also helped Brady in ways the Patriots didn’t at the end of his time in Foxborough, and in the process, they’ve laid out an optimal roadmap for how to get production out of ancient QBs. On Sunday, we’ll see how that works against the guy who helped Brady reach his apex.
The foundation of Brady’s success is that he takes care of himself well, or at least in a way that works for him. It is annoying as hell that he looks this good, and that his current slate of national commercials are pretty funny. The guy Brady primarily trusts with helping him care for his body is, as Boston Magazine once called him, a “glorified snake oil salesman,” a descriptor that seems about right for someone whom the FTC says faked being a doctor and said his progress could fix not just cancer but also concussions. That guy’s still pretty involved! I don’t know everything Brady does to keep his body immaculate (other than that bread does not play a role, and that the only cheating he’s ever been accused of by an official entity involved deflated footballs) or how it fits with best practices for normal people, but it works for him. He doesn’t look like an old dude when he torments 22-year-old defensive backs.
The Bucs’ head coach, Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich have played a part too. They’ve let Brady flex his durable personal fitness more than the Patriots seemed to allow in his last two years there. Based on a whole suite of his passing stats and also what anyone’s eyeballs told them while watching him, Brady’s play took a turn for the worse in 2018, the year he won his sixth Patriots Super Bowl on the back of the NFL’s best defense. His adjusted yards per attempt dropped from 8.4 to 7.8 and his total quarterback rating from 70.6 to 68.4. Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to want Brady to get rid of the ball more quickly than before. There are a handful of reasons an offense would prefer quick throws, but not trusting an old QB to absorb hits and make downfield throws would be near the top of a generic list.
In 2017, Brady’s intended target was an average of 9 yards downfield, which was 12th in the league according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats database. He held the ball for a while (2.71 seconds per drop-back, one of the higher numbers in the league) and let it rip. In 2018, he held it for just 2.62 seconds (the seventh-shortest time among qualifying QBs), and his intended targets were 7.7 yards downfield on average—16th in the league, right in the middle. Those numbers in 2019 were similar, and Brady looked nothing like the fearless downfield passer he was for much of his career. That year was the worst of Brady’s career other than injury-erased 2008, and the team and QB moved on.
With the Bucs, Brady has played a style more resembling that of his younger days. In an apparent paradox, he’s getting rid of the ball even faster—an average of 2.57 seconds in 2020, ninth-quickest in the league—but taking deeper shots downfield anyway. His average intended target last year was 9.3 yards downfield. This year, he’s gotten rid of it quicker yet again (2.49 seconds) and his targets have been an average of 8 yards downfield, less than last year but still more than in his closing years in New England. Releasing the ball faster but throwing it farther doesn’t make immediate sense, but it starts to click if you believe two things: One, that Arians and Leftwich believe in Brady’s extremely old right arm, and two, that the Buccaneers have vertical passing weapons Brady did not usually have at his disposal in New England.
Brady’s skill-position players with the Patriots were good enough to win six rings. But outside of a brief, glorious stretch throwing to Randy Moss, Brady didn’t have elite deep threats in Foxborough. Rob Gronkowski has been a constant for more than a decade (save during his year in retirement in 2019), and he looks as rejuvenated in Florida as any retiree. The Bucs’ Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are among the league’s best athletes at receiver, and they’re a lot more appealing to throw deep to than Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and the brigade of non-Gronk tight ends and running backs Brady had with the Patriots. Plus, Arians and Leftwich obviously believe that Brady is still capable of sending the ball a long way.
The Bucs have also helped Brady with the sort of defense he came to expect under Belichick. Tampa Bay was sixth in yards allowed per play and eighth in scoring defense last year, and a dominant playoff run included humbling Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. Brady has spent much more time in his career playing from ahead than behind, and it’s a good thing, because he’s a lot worse when he’s losing, as one would expect. Brady’s career adjusted yards per attempt when leading is 8.1, compared to 7.3 when he’s behind. And he has thrown much more frequent interceptions when trailing (one per 45 throws) than when leading (one every 60). If you’re going to have a late-career renaissance of chucking the ball downfield like you did when you were young, it helps to not have to force passes to overcome a deficit.
None of this makes Brady what he was at the top of his game. His real peak was somewhere around 2004 to 2011, when he regularly had some of the best numbers both in the league and of his career. But Brady’s latest chapter has shown that it’s possible to improve performance long past the age when most athletes stop playing at all. Brady’s Tampa Bay experience will never eclipse what he did with Belichick, but it’s more than enough to have won their breakup.