History says New England's Tom Brady won’t be a great quarterback into his mid-40s.
But sports scientists who specialize in studying elite athletes are much more open to the possibility, not just for Brady but also players such as the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, who sees in him the possibilities for quarterback longevity in today’s NFL.
“I wouldn’t bet against (Brady),” said Joe Baker, a professor of kinesiology and health sciences at York University in Toronto.
Said Hirofumi Tanaka, a professor of Kinesiology at the University of Texas: “The easiest answer to your question is, yes, it is quite possible.”
Brady has set the goal of playing at a high level until he's 46 or 47. That sounds far-fetched, because no NFL quarterback has made it past 40 playing that well.
But the 39-year-old Brady, who is coming off another elite season, has become fanatical about his diet and conditioning, and that example is bringing Rodgers (33) with him. In the last few years, Rodgers has talked more and more of wanting to play until at least 40, and of emulating Brady to do it.
“The way (Brady) takes care of his body is really a model for all quarterbacks,” Rodgers said just last week on the podcast of Fox Sports’ Evan Daniels.
As for what Brady, Rodgers and their peers are up against, it starts with this: Brett Favre had the best season by a quarterback of at least 40 when he went 12-4, had a 107.2 rating and led the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC championship game as a 40-year old in the 2009 season. His body gave out the next year (5-8, 69.9 rating) and he retired.
Other 40-plus starters include Warren Moon (11-13 record at ages 41 and 42 combined) and Vinny Testaverde (8-17 with three different teams from ages 41-44). That’s not what teams are looking for.
That's also about it for the 40-and-over gang. The only other quarterback 40 or older who started at least half a season was Matt Hasselbeck with Indianapolis in 2015. He went 5-3 at age 40 and then retired.
Even George Blanda’s remarkable 1970 season at age 43 included zero starts. He came off the bench in five straight games that season to lead the Oakland Raiders on comebacks to either the winning or tying score, and he doubled as their kicker. But he was Daryle Lamonica’s backup and threw only 55 passes all season.
The point is, quarterbacks have played into their early 40s, but none has played at a high level beyond 40. That’s what matters. Peyton Manning is the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl — he was 35 days shy of his 40th birthday when he won with Denver two years ago. That was his final game, and even he at that point was a shell of himself.
Brady, at age 39 and 186 days, became second oldest with his title last February. He was different, though. He carried the Patriots again last season. But is it realistic to think he can keep this up even with all that he’s doing for longevity?
Mike Joyner, who specializes in studying the physiology of elite athletes at the Mayo Clinic, essentially agreed with Baker and Tanaka.
“Can somebody go to 46 or 47? I don’t know,” Joyner said. “But could he play to 43 or 44? Yeah. If I were somebody like Brady I’d say, let’s take it to 43 or 44 and re-evaluate.”
There are several reasons to think at least that can happen.
One is the history of older athletes in other contact sports. Archie Moore last successfully defended his world light-heavyweight title at age 47; Gordie Howe played 80 games and put up 41 points as a 51-year-old in the NHL; and Chris Chelios played in 69 NHL games as a 46-year-old.
Still, the standard of play for a starting quarterback is high. While Howe and Chelios were good enough to play in the NHL their final years, they weren’t top players. Brady won’t keep his job performing at that level in the NFL.
Also, the physical punishment in football is especially brutal.
“One of the biggest threats to older athletes is the accumulation of injuries,” Tanaka said.
This is where rules changes protecting quarterbacks come into play. It’s still tough to play the position in the NFL, but strict prohibitions against head and neck shots, late hits, and pile driving greatly improve their chances of survival. The game has changed dramatically even in the last six or seven years. If you don’t think so, find a highlight video of Favre’s “Bountygate” game against New Orleans in January 2010. He took six or seven brutal shots that would have been major penalties in today’s game.
Then there are major advances in medicine and diet. Surgeries are far less invasive, rehabilitation is better, and elite players have their own trainers and dieticians.
“The days of Bobby Layne and Ken Stabler are over,” Joyner said, referring to two carousing Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Increasingly sophisticated approaches to training and recovery are big also. Older players stay healthier because they train more for quality, not quantity. Rodgers often brings up the importance of sleep in enhancing the body’s ability to repair itself; Brady has said he aims for eight to 10 hours a night.
Older players also emphasize strength training to forestall age-related losses in muscle mass; selective use of plyometric (explosive) and band training to maintain quick-twitch ability; and core and flexibility work.
Baseball player Ichiro Suzuki is famously secretive about his rigorous stretching program that requires specialized equipment and that he performs several times a day. Last season at age 42, he hit .291 in 327 at-bats and was 10-for-12 on steal attempts.
“Bet if we looked at what the great Ichiro is doing we would find a lot of similarities in Brady's program,” Joyner said.
Up to now, the big drop-off for elite quarterbacks has been anywhere from age 38 to 40. Even Manning’s play nosedived at 38 because of neck surgery that robbed him of arm strength, though he did manage to win the Super Bowl with the defense-oriented Broncos a year later.
But even that’s longer than all NFL positions except kicking specialists, because quarterback play above all requires read and reaction time, which can be preserved longer than speed and power. Avoiding a catastrophic injury like Manning’s will be huge for Brady and Rodgers.
“It’s a question of marginal losses,” Joyner said. “A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there, and it’s just not the same. … They’re a half step slower, their arm strength is a little less. If it’s just one of those things they can compensate, but you have two or three of those micro hits and it’s hard to continue.”
Joyner also wondered if NFL teams eventually will treat an aging elite quarterback like NBA and MLB teams treat older stars by giving them regularly scheduled games off. That will be a tougher sell with NFL coaches, where the regular season is only 16 games, and continuity is paramount.
But Brady was suspended the first four games this year and the Patriots still won the Super Bowl. What mattered most was that he was healthy and sharp at the end of the year.
Either way, it’s going to be tough for Brady to make it 46 or 47, because when the end comes in the NFL, it comes fast. But even if he doesn’t get there, he just might come close. And who knows? Maybe Rodgers has another 10 years of really good football left in him.