By Jason Keidel
It’s been an open question for a few years now, waving like a flag over his head.
How long will Tom Brady be Tom Brady? When will the sundial ever hit sunset on the iconic Patriots quarterback?
At 40, Brady is the oldest QB to start in a Super Bowl. While he’s surely deep into the back nine of his career, which hole is he on? Can Brady really play until 45, and play at his epic level?
The answer ripples past the player, deep into the franchise he’s led for nearly two decades. Without recycling the debate about whether Pats coach Bill Belichick was forced by Bob Kraft to trade Brady’s two backups — both of whom are now starting for other NFL clubs — we can agree that since Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo are gone, there is no franchise QB in the pipeline. There will be no smooth transition under center, as the 49ers once had when Joe Montana handed the ball to Steve Young, or when Brett Favre pitched the pigskin to Aaron Rodgers. Once Brady finally falls, so will the franchise.
We don’t have a Tom Brady in the Big Apple, so we can only compare him to Yankees. So is Brady Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera? Both were the ultimate winners, and twin-faces of the Yankees dynasty. Jeter played until he couldn’t, until his stat sheet told him to retire. But Rivera baffled batters well into his 40s and was still great until the last pitch. At the moment he left the sport, Rivera would have been the best closer on nearly every MLB club.
Brady’s personal drive is so stratospheric, you wonder if he will play until he’s forced out, or will his standards keep him from hanging on past his expected production. Likewise, will Belichick stick around to find out? Or will he follow Brady out the door?
When you’re in the high, rare orbit of immortals, we can only guess what makes them tick, what makes them tired, what makes them retire. Why did Jim Brown hang up his cleats when he was still the best running back in the world? Likewise, why did Barry Sanders leave at least 5000 yards, at least five million dollars, and the all-time rushing title on the gridiron?
There’s never been a 41-year-old QB starting, much less winning, a Super Bowl. Yet there’s no indication Brady will leave the sport soon. He’s not only absurdly driven, he’s now pumping PR air into his TB12 brand, an athletic cocktail of training, attitude, and affirmation. We’ve all heard the stories about avocado ice cream, space-age pajamas, a world without sugar, and sacrificing his life for his football immortality. In his sphere of success, does Brady still have the self-awareness to know when it’s over?
Several talking heads, like Max Kellerman, have been blasted for pointing out that Brady will soon plunge from a professional cliff, and will naturally decay from great to good to bad. I’m not sure why that’s considered an insult. Such logic is based on irrefutable football and human history. Whether your foe is Father Time or Mother Nature, either is undefeated. It is a fact that Brady will someday become a bad NFL quarterback, and will be replaced.
The problem for Kraft and his Patriots is that there is now no succession plan in place. So, like Brady, the Pats will likely sink from yearly title contenders into mediocrity. We can’t say when, only because it should have happened already. Brady’s glacial decay speaks to his dedication, some awesome genetics, and the pleasure of playing for the best NFL coach since Vince Lombardi.
There is one odd stat that portends a bad Sunday for Brady. The NFL’s passing leader — Brady led the NFL in passing yards in 2017 — is 0-5 in the Super Bowl. Does it speak to how infrequently the passing king reaches the final game, or does it spell doom for Brady? Likely the former, as Brady is the rare sports legend who isn’t defined by stats, other than winning. And no one has done it better than Brady, Belichick and the New England Patriots.
We know they have at least one more win in them. But do they have another run in them? Anyone who tells you they know is lying.
Even Tom Brady.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.