This isn't the way it's supposed to work. An NFL quarterback turning 39 is like an NFL running back hitting the big 3-0. It's over. There's no gradual decline, it's like getting sacked off a cliff. There are a few exceptions in both cases, of course, but the generalities are mostly accepted as facts: Quarterbacks are done at 39.
Tom Brady turned 39 on Aug. 9 and not only isn't he cliff diving like he's on one of those old Wide World of Sports episodes, but he's actually playing such good football that it's reasonable to ask if this is the best Tom Brady we've ever seen. His numbers as compared to his 2016 peers are impressive enough. But going back through history to see where Brady stands among quarterbacks age 39 and older is downright unbelievable. Let's take a spin.
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He's on a four-game tear
After missing the first four games while on suspension for deflating his Golden Boy reputation, Brady has put up record numbers. On Sunday, he became just the third quarterback in history to start the season with the season with 12 TD passes and zero interceptions in his first four games, joining Peyton Manning and Don Meredith. That goes with his 4-0 record, average of 330 passing yards per game and a completion rate that is the best in the league by more than five percentage points.
Through the finish of the Sunday afternoon games (meaning there's two left in Week 8), Brady had more touchdown passes than Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton and had more than doubled up Russell Wilson. He was only five TD throws behind league leader Drew Brees, who has played three more games.
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He's on pace for perfection
Brady is on pace for 3,957 passing yards, 36 TD passes, zero interceptions and a 133.9 rating. And that'd be just in the 12 games he's eligible to play. Extrapolate his numbers for 16 games and they would be 5,276/48/0. The first would be the third-best total in NFL history. The second would be tied for fourth. And the third would be one of the greatest feats the sport has ever seen. Clearly those are impossible for the obvious reasons that Brady isn't playing 16 games and he's unlikely to keep his pace for the next eight he gets to play. Even so, if Brady were to throw, say, 31 TD passes and four interceptions, those would be staggering numbers for any quarterback. For this quarterback they'd be mind-boggling.
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He's making 39 the new 30
It's hard to grasp just how rare it is for a quarterback so old to be playing so well. So let's start with the easiest fact: It's exceptionally rare for a quarterback so old to even be playing in the NFL. In the last half-century (the Super Bowl era), only 30 quarterbacks have ever taken a snap after turning 39 years old. Just six men started eight or more games in their 39-year-old season. Six. SIX! Move to 40-year-olds and the number drops to three, and it's the same total for 41-year-olds. Only one quarterback has ever started eight-plus games at 42 or beyond.
Overall, there have been eight quarterbacks who have started half their games after turning 39. Those eight quarterbacks played a total of 13 combined seasons. That goes all the way to the start of the NFL, in the days of Toledo, Rock Island, Pottsville and Duluth. Barring injury, Brady will join that exclusive club on Thanksgiving weekend. Even so, right now he's at four starts. So if your broaden the search (on the indispensable pro-football-reference.com) to include QBs who've just started four games at those ages you get a total of 24, with Brady becoming the 25th on Sunday. It's hard to stress this enough: Almost nobody plays QB1 after turning 39. Brady just being out there is amazing enough. What he's doing with those starts makes it downright jaw-dropping.
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Old-guy records are in his sights
Through four games, Brady already has the seventh-most single-season touchdown passes in NFL history for any player age 39 or over. If he stays at his four-game pace, he'll either set, or come close to setting, the single-season records in each major passing category despite having missed a quarter of the season. The yardage record: 4228, Warren Moon, 4228 yards (age 39, 1995 Vikings). Touchdown passes: 33, Moon (same season) and Brett Favre (age 40, 2009 Vikings). Rating: 107.2, Favre (same season). I doubt he'll get the first two, but it's irrelevant given the number of games Brady will play. The context, however, is fascinating.
QB rating isn't the greatest way to evaluate a quarterback, and QB wins are overrated (though slightly underrated by the people who hate on them so much), but Brady is basically assured of breaking Favre's old-man rating record eight weeks from now and will break the mark for highest winning percentage by a 39-plus quarterback if the Pats finish on a 6-2 run. Manning went 7-2 (.777) last year, and Favre went 12-4 (.750) in that 40-year-old season with the Vikes that ended one pass short of the Super Bowl. Only two more quarterbacks on our list posted a winning record -- Favre went 9-7 at age 39 and (you guessed it) Matt Hasselbeck, who went 5-3 for the Colts last year.
He's great even by young-Brady standards
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I think the reason it's so hard to fully appreciate Brady and this insta-history we're witnessing (but not celebrating) is because his greatness merely continues what we've seen for 16 years. Of course Tom Brady is playing well. Why wouldn't he? That's what Tom Brady does.
The quickness of Peyton Manning's decline was easy to rationalize. It wasn't until the ball started fluttering that we realized his comeback from a devastating back injury was basically a miracle and he'd been playing on borrowed time all along. Brady, though, remains Brady. He looks like he's 35, is seasoned like he's 30 and plays like he's 25.
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We've never seen this before
The other guys who've defied the inexorable march of time -- Manning, Hasselbeck, Favre (39, 40, 41), Vinny Testaverde, Doug Flutie, Warren Moon (39, 40, 41, 42), Jim Plunkett and Len Dawson -- have mostly done so by putting duct tape around all their myriad holes and praying for the best. It rarely worked. Manning won a Super Bowl on savvy, guts, more savvy and a great defense. Moon was a volume passer who didn't win very much. At 40 and 41, Favre became even more a slinger of guns. The others either started a lot and were bad (Vinny and Doug) or were used sparingly and were mostly bad (Hasselbeck, Plunkett and Dawson).
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OK, Peak Brady came in 2007
Back to the titular question: Is Brady better than ever for him and not just the guys who played on the way down the NFL's hill? He's never done the 12 TD/0 INT thing in his career, which is impressive. In fact, the closest he came was last year, when it was 11 TD/0 INT through his first four games. In one of his four Super Bowl seasons, Brady started 5 TD/7 INT. He's had only one season in which his QB rating through four games was better than the 133.9 he currently sports, and that season and last year were the only other times he's had QB ratings of 100-plus in the first four games.
But is Brady better than ever? No. Obviously no. In 2007, the year with the hotter start, he went 16-0 with 4,806 yards, 50 TD passes, eight interceptions and a rating of 117.2 while completing passes at nearly at a 70 percent clip. (He was at 13 TD/2 INT through four games that year.) Brady's 2008 is the second-best quarterbacking season in the history of the league, behind Peyton Manning's 2013 season with its 5,477 yards, 55 TD passes, 10 interceptions and 115.1 rating. (It's not even a discussion as to which season is better, but I can practically feel the misspelled missives from WEEI listeners filling up my Twitter mentions anyway.) Brady's best season was 2007, and he never approached, nor will he approach, those heights again.
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This season is great for the GOAT resume
That being said, Brady is on the verge of having the finest year for any quarterback of his age. Barring injury, there's no reason to expect he won't be doing the same thing at 40. That cliff seems a lot less perilous with Tom Brady standing there.
Brady seems almost assured of becoming the greatest old quarterback in history, something that might aid in his quest to be remembered as the quarterback GOAT. In that way then, if he keeps this up in 2016 and beyond, it may end up being his greatest solo achievement in a career filled with them.