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When old athletes hang on and pull out one more moment, it’s always thrilling, encouraging, heart-warming, inspirational. George Foreman won the heavyweight title at 45. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. Before that, Jimmy Connors, well past his expiration date, almost won the US Open.
Tom Brady is 43, but a football season isn’t a moment. It’s a slog.
So we’ve seen him confused this year, inaccurate, childish, churlish. But let’s face it: No matter what happens Sunday with Brady and Tampa Bay against New Orleans in the NFL playoffs, Brady is already the winner.
I feel a little bad for Drew Brees, being overlooked. This is his 42nd birthday, and he’s a future Hall of Famer and an all-time great. And if he beats Brady Sunday, it’ll put him in another NFC Championship Game. His season has been an inspiration. He broke 11 ribs and punctured his lung and then came right back and played. In your 40s, the body is already falling apart on its own. It doesn’t need the help of a pass rush.
So the two of them add up to 85 years old. That’s the oldest starting-quarterback combo in a game in NFL history, breaking the record they set earlier this year, which broke the record they set even earlier this year.
And it’s a little freakish how three of the four NFC quarterbacks left — including Aaron Rodgers — are almost old enough to be, well, let’s go with the older uncle, of the four young quarterbacks left in the AFC.
The posters and fun people are having with Brady vs. Brees are all well and good until someone breaks a hip. They show Brady with a long gray beard and Brees gray and bald.
“He’s a lot younger than me,’’ Brady said. “He’s 18 months younger than me. Eighteen months ago, I felt pretty good. So I’ve got a little advanced age on him and experience. But I’m hanging in there.’’
Neither of these guys even fits the QB prototype. Brady went in the sixth round of the NFL draft and Brees in the second. And even after Brady won his first Super Bowl, he was seen as a system quarterback who benefitted from Bill Belichick’s genius. Brees didn’t start out that well in his first three years, when he was in San Diego.
I guess it’s just something about the process, trusting in yourself over your critics. That applies to the beginning of your career, the middle and the end, too.
For sure, Brady heard the talk a few years ago, and especially after last year, that it was time for him to go. He still had it, but we didn’t want to see him fade away.
Brady wanted to go out on his own, away from Belichick, in the way that any 17-year-old boy is ready to explore the world. Only Brady was in his early 40s.
Brady doesn’t have to win the Super Bowl — imagine that — or even win this game. By mid-season, he had lost to the Chicago Bears in what should have been one of his patented late-game wins, but he couldn’t remember what down it was. He couldn’t complete the long passes of his new coach, Bruce Arians’ style, as opposed to the dink and dunk Belichick had him doing. Tampa was wildly inconsistent, getting crushed by New Orleans, crushing Green Bay and losing to Chicago. He childishly walked off without shaking hands after his losses, especially if they were to quarterbacks he doesn’t think belong on his level.
It was all part of the process for the greatest quarterback of all time, an old QB who is going to have ups and downs while learning a new system with new teammates and a new coach.
And if he somehow takes this thing all the way to another Super Bowl win, taking down one of the young guns — Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson — then those guys and that generation will never live that down. They will never reach Brady’s status, even if they chase it for 15 more years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tampa Bay has won its past five games. And that’s not because the old guy has been hanging on. It’s because he has been changing himself, connecting with Arians, who was publicly ripping him not long ago. Arians still has Brady throwing deep, but he has now included the motion and play-action that Brady likes. So Brady is throwing long now with accuracy.
In the past seven weeks, Brady has thrown for 319 yards per game. He has 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past three games.
It was impressive all season watching Nick Saban re-invent himself at Alabama at nearly 70 years old, turning the Crimson Tide into a wide-open modern passing offense and winning another national championship.
You don’t usually do your best work at the end of your career. You just try to have moments. This isn’t Brady’s best work ever. But he can’t just do this on smarts. His old body has to cooperate, too. And this is a long season, not a snapshot.
It’s amazing that Brady has gotten this far this year, bringing Tampa Bay into relevance. Heck, it’s impressive enough he didn’t break a hip.