How Many More Years Can Tom Brady Realistically Play at an Elite Level?

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How Many More Years Can Tom Brady Realistically Play at an Elite Level?
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Tom Brady will not play forever, but can he play at an elite level for the rest of his career?

He may need to if the New England Patriots are going to win another Super Bowl before he hangs it up for good.

Of course, improvement on defense would go a long way in bringing the Patriots closer to that goal.

Plenty of stats could support or refute Brady remaining among the league's elite, but he wouldn't be the first quarterback to peter off toward the end of his career.

There's no doubt Brady has been a better quarterback since 2007 than he was before that historical season, but how much longer will that continue before age takes its toll?

Perhaps the better question is, will age take its toll at all?

Let's take a look at a few key ingredients to figuring out how much longer he has.

 

Still in His Prime?

Brady's career is easily split into two categories: before turning 30 (2001-06) and since turning 30 (2007-XX).

Is he already showing some signs of slowing down, though?

Statistical trends point to Brady no longer playing at quite the level he realized just a few years ago. Here are some nuggets to digest from 2012 (not including his 11-pass 2008 season):

  • His completion percentage of 62.95 was his lowest since 2006.
  • His 7.6 yards per attempt was his lowest since 2006.
  • Touchdowns (34) and passer rating (98.7) were both the lowest since 2010.

Now that the nitpicking is out of the way, the following is true of Brady's stats over the past five years in comparison to the first six of his career:

  • His passer rating is 17 points higher.
  • He has completed the same number of passes on 178 fewer attempts.
  • He has thrown for nearly a full yard per pass attempt more.
  • He has thrown fewer than 30 touchdowns just once after failing to do so once in the first six years of his career.
  • His passer rating of 102.5 since 2009 is second-best only to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
  • Since 2007, Brady has become the first and only quarterback to throw for 34 or more touchdowns and 12 or fewer interceptions in more than two seasons, and he's done it four times ('07, '10, '11, '12).
  • He has also thrown fewer interceptions over the past five years than in any four-year stretch from 2001-06.

Before 2007, Brady was little more than a game manager. Since 2007, he's been nothing short of a game changer.

You'd think, judging by those numbers, the guy in the 2007-12 period would be the one with three Super Bowls. He has yet to show signs of "reverting" to the form from those Super Bowl seasons, either.

One particular area that gets picked apart, though, is his deep passing.

Brady has attempted more deep passes (traveling 20 yards or more in the air) each year over the past three years, but he been less and less accurate (drops counting as catches) each of the past three years, as well.

Accuracy down, attempts up. What to make of it?

This is essentially a glass-half-full-or-half-empty argument. You could debate that his accuracy percentage has been low because the Patriots have lacked a true outside-the-numbers deep threat since Randy Moss left, or you could look at the numbers as indicative of fading arm strength and accuracy.

The only way to find out is to get Brady a true deep threat on the outside and let him go to work. 

As for the rise in deep attempts, you could debate that the Patriots' offense has been going more vertical a result of opposing offenses doing the same to New England's defense. Bringing back Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator may have had something to do with it, too.

You could argue that it's, indeed, a sign that Brady's arm can still handle the workload of an NFL season.

Some of Brady's stats have taken a dip over the past few years, but he's playing some of his best, most efficient football, and is still playing at an elite level in comparison to his peers. Whether his arm strength fades or not, he and the Patriots coaching staff will do what is necessary to play to his strengths to ensure the offense continues to move at an efficient rate.

 

Other Quarterbacks 36 and Older

Brady turns 36 in August, and if he continues to play at the level he played at last year, and the level he's played at over his past five complete regular seasons, he'll be in rare air. If he earns his 98.7 passer rating from last year as a 36-year-old, it will rank sixth among all 36-year-old quarterbacks with at least 10 starts.

You probably won't be surprised to know that plenty of quarterbacks have been successful after the age of 36, but most haven't put up earth-shattering numbers. Only 13 times has a quarterback over the age of 36 posted a passer rating of 93 or above for the season.

Eight of them, however, have been since 2001.

The age of protected quarterbacks has allowed passers to remain efficient and even deadly from the pocket even into their late-30s, with relative ease.

 

Tailoring an Offense to an Aging Quarterback

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The 2012 season was a bit different for the Patriots' offense. Brady wasn't asked to do as much last year with the team relying more on the running game than it has in years past. The Patriots ranked seventh in rushing and had the second-most rushing attempts in the league. They also led the league in touchdown runs with 25.

Brady also had the most pass attempts of any season in his career.

Sheer volume was the name of the game for the Patriots' offense in 2012; they ran 1,191 plays from scrimmage, which fell just short of the record of 1,199 held by the 1994 Patriots.

Pass attempts weren't the only thing that went up; the Patriots also ran the ball more than they had in any season since 2004. 

What do we take away from all this? 

Increased utilization of the running game could be a key for the Patriots' offense going forward, but as long as Brady's playing at an elite level, they have no reason to take the ball out of his hands.

That being said, perhaps they could steal a page out of the Denver Broncos' book? The Broncos were one of the league's most pass-happy teams from 1993-95 before they scaled things back from 1996-98 in Elway's final three years on their way to two Super Bowl wins.

Those seasons marked three of Elway's four most efficient seasons in terms of passer rating. He was still playing at an elite level, and was still a key to the Broncos' Super Bowl success, but he wasn't the key. 

Stevan Ridley is no Terrell Davis, but his emergence as a workhorse back allows the Patriots' offense to be much more balanced, thereby taking some of the pressure off Brady.

Basically, Brady doesn't have to throw the ball 600-plus times to still be an elite quarterback.

 

The Brett Favre Effect

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Brady will hit 36 years old before the 2013 season begins. 

It would have been unheard of for a quarterback to play beyond that age just a few years ago.

Then, Brett Favre decided to unretire ... and retire ... and unretire again.

His performance went up and down in those final three years as he traveled from Green Bay to the New York Jets and then to the Minnesota Vikings. Along the way, though, he did prove an old man can still sling it.

An arm injury in 2008 took some of the zip off his passes, which left everyone wondering if he was done. Favre threw two touchdowns and nine interceptions in the final five games of the season as the Jets missed the playoffs, and Favre retired again.

We all know what happened next. Favre brought new meaning to the phrase "silver fox," and lit up the NFL at the ripe age of 40. In fact, it was statistically the best season of Favre's career. 

He had help from what he called "the best team I've ever been on." Running back Adrian Peterson rushed for over 1,300 yards for the third consecutive season and led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. The 2009 Vikings defense ranked 10th in scoring, first in sacks and second against the run.

None of that overshadowed one simple fact: Favre played his best football at 40 years old.

He posted career best marks in passer rating (107.5), completion percentage (68.4), yards per pass attempt (7.9), interceptions (7) and interception percentage (1.3). That was the only season in his career in which he surpassed a 100 passer rating.

Photo via Clarion Ledger.
Then, the NFC Championship Game happened.

Favre was pummeled into a pile of skin and bones in a game which was often referenced in the Saints' Bountygate scandal. The Saints did a pretty extraordinary amount of damage to Favre's ankle.

Whether that injury was the reason for his decline or not, it's not 100 percent clear. What is clear is that in 2010, Favre had the worst season of his career. It ended, almost mercifully it seemed, when he was taken out by a vicious hit from Bills linebacker Arthur Moats. Amid myriad injuries both physical and personal in nature (Jenn Sterger scandal), Favre retired.

His time with the Vikings started with the promise of him walking off into the sunset to end his career, but his walk was more of a limp by the time things were done.

The fact is, though, Favre realized a level of play he had never realized at any point in his career. It had a lot to do with a surrounding cast that made his life easier.

Injuries, however, are the great unknown. They became an increasing cause of Favre's poor play toward the end of his career, and his case is proof that one injury can change everything. Favre also relied more on his arm strength and ability to make downfield throws than Brady does.

 

So, About That Headline...

Brady has always been characterized for his impeccable work ethic, and for that reason, it's hard to see him simply falling off the map entirely as one of the league's top quarterbacks.

Certainly, with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski signed with the Patriots through 2018 and 2019 respectively, Brady will have elite firepower at his disposal throughout the rest of his career.

It is realistic to expect Brady to play at a high level for a minimum of three years, but that depends on a few factors:

  • Does he avoid injuries?
  • Does the Patriots' solid running game carry over into the 2013 season and beyond?
  • Do the Patriots finally equip the offense with a legitimate outside-the-numbers threat?

You could even argue that a return to dominance for the defense would help Brady remain at an elite level. Bringing back the starting secondary which allowing the Patriots to remain consistent on the back end, would help in that regard.

How much longer can Tom Brady play at an elite level?

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Brady has been fortunate to remain relatively injury-free minus his season-ending ACL (and that nagging shoulder injury) but as Drew Bledsoe learned the hard way, any hit could be the hit.

Barring a jarring blow, there's no reason to think Brady's window as an elite quarterback is closing anytime soon. 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.comFollow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. 

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