Tom Brady: Setting a Realistic Window for the Remainder of His NFL Career

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIJune 15, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 14:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots calls out signals during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 14, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The New England Patriots' loss in last year's divisional round of the AFC playoffs was painful enough without the calendar having to get involved.

Going out in your first game as the top seed, to your archrival, no less, fills plenty of the ingredients for a devastating defeat. But what stings as much as those factors was the blown opportunity, the missed chance to hitch a very good team to a franchise quarterback, still in his prime, for another Super Bowl run.

The loss to the Jets turned the page on 2010 and football in Tom Brady's 33rd year of life. Aug. 3 might still be a happy day in the Brady family, but it becomes a day of increasing anxiety among Patriots fans.

Brady was 33 on that cold night in January. He'll be 34 by opening kickoff in September. He'll be 35 by his next snap if the ice doesn't melt in the lockout labor negotiations. He won't be around forever, folks.

It'd be foolish to say Brady has peaked. His MVP season last year was an unprecedented example of efficiency, and his two best seasons have both come after he turned 30. Brady's got good years left. Great, even. But how many?

If you ask No. 12, we're at the start of the ride. He wants to play until he's in his 40s. That's easy to say when you've won two of the last three MVPs you've competed for, but let's be serious.

A good place to start would be with his contract. Brady signed a lucrative four-year extension that keeps him in New England through the 2014 season, during which he'd be 37 years old. He's always been a smart and resourceful player who's been good at working with what his body and team have to offer. Brady is better now than ever (regular season, at least), and barring injury, he should still remain an elite quarterback all the way through this deal.

But is that the end of the line?

The normal procedure to answer a question like this would be to go back and see how long the previous great quarterbacks have lasted, but this is problematic. For one, football changes so rapidly that trying to compare players separated by more than 25 years or so is impossible. For a second reason, the quarterbacks' situations don't relate to Brady's enough to draw a reasonable conclusion.

Joe Montana's prime ended after he made the 1990 NFC championship game at 34, but that was because he suffered an injury that made him miss all of 1991 and nearly all of '92. Dan Marino made his last Pro Bowl in 1995 as a 34-year-old but had a long list of injuries dogging him throughout his career.

John Elway went out on top of his game in January of 1999 at 38 years old but dealt with plenty of punishment as a scrambling quarterback. Steve Young and Troy Aikman saw their careers derailed by concussions.

The best player to compare Brady to might be his closest peer on the field. Peyton Manning and Brady both play behind standout offensive lines that are built to keep their jerseys clean. Manning is a year older, is also expecting an expensive, long-term contract and is still operating well within his normal Pro Bowl standards, having made the last nine straight and won two of the last three MVPs.

However, there are clouds over Manning as well. He had knee surgery before the 2008 season and a mistake-prone season last year that saw him throw 11 interceptions in three games at one point had some media sources throwing the word "decline" around.

There's plenty of reason, however, to think that Manning is still in his prime or very close, though the Colts' star is better positioned to avoid a physical decline than Brady is. Manning is very good (some argue to a fault) at releasing the ball early to avoid contact. As a result, Manning's been sacked 231 times in 208 games. In only 145 games, Brady's been sacked 244 times.

Then there are the injuries.

Brady has had tremendous difficulty in staying healthy, despite playing behind Pro Bowl offensive linemen. He was clearly bothered by the infamous hurt ankle before Super Bowl XLII. He had the torn ACL in 2008. He broke fingers and ribs in 2009. He had a stress fracture in his foot at the end of last year.

It's a credit to Brady's toughness that, minus 2008, he's made every start for his team since 2001 despite constantly being hurt.

In the midst of all this doom and gloom is the fact that Brady is still playing exceptional football, and this Patriots team is built for some more years of championship-caliber football with him as the focal piece. Again, barring injury, Brady should continue to pad his Hall of Fame resume and compete for (at least) a fourth Super Bowl title during his contract.

After that, all bets are off. Brady will be 37 years old (38 by the 2015 season) and more banged up, and history doesn't smile upon quarterbacks of that age. He could eke out another productive year, like Kurt Warner did at 38 in 2009, but the Elways and Brett Favres are never the norm to base judgment on.

That puts the onus on the Patriots, more so than ever. They have a four-year window with the game's best quarterback and a team he can win with. The time to take advantage isn't coming up. It's already at hand.

After all, they can't all be 34 forever.