Despite turning 40 in August, Tom Brady will still commandeer one of the best teams in the league.
We all know the story by now.
Up 28-3, nearing the end of the third quarter, everybody assumed the Atlanta Falcons had Super Bowl LI locked up. That is, everybody except Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. In the greatest comeback in NFL history, Brady rallied the Pats to a 34-28 overtime victory and cemented his legacy as the GOAT.
After claiming their fifth title of the Brady-Belichick era, the NFL’s greatest dynasty finally silenced the critics. But with Brady turning 40 this offseason, just how far can he take the Patriots?
First, let’s start with the history. Though quarterbacks tend to have longer careers than players at most NFL positions, 40 years old is still way past prime years. To illustrate this, we can look at the top 20 individual quarterback seasons according to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) statistic.
Of this group, the average age is just under 30 years old, more than a decade younger than Brady. On top of that, 40 is three standard deviations above the mean, which would put Brady north of the 99th percentile if he has another brilliant season. To put it simply, Brady will need to be extraordinary.
But from what we’ve seen of Brady, he’s already an anomaly. Yes, he is the most decorated playoff quarterback with five rings, but he also owns the best regular season — statistically — of any NFL passer. Brady’s 2007 campaign sits alone at the top with an AV of 24.
Granted, Brady’s peak was in his age-30 season. But if we look closely, we can see just how well he has aged too. After an MVP-worthy season in only 12 games last year, Brady posted an AV of 13. However, if he had played all 16 games at the same level, he would have had the 60th best season of any passer ever. No quarterback under the age of 37 would have had a better season than Brady’s age 39 season. As he tossed 28 touchdowns to only two picks, he also set the record for the highest touchdown-to-interception ratio in league history. As he’s gotten older, Brady has made smarter decisions and fewer mistakes.
As good as Brady is, however, strong quarterback play can only take a team so far. And the Patriots have extensive talent to make the most of Brady’s excellence. For starters, their pass-catchers are among the best in the league. Rob Gronkowski, arguably the best tight end in NFL history, returns after missing half of last season and the playoffs due to hamstring and back injuries. In addition, the Patriots acquired speedy receiver Brandin Cooks, who has already posted two 1,000-yard seasons by age 23. But perhaps their biggest asset in the passing game is their depth, with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, and Andrew Hawkins all vying for spots at wide receiver, not to mention the acquisition of Dwayne Allen to back up Gronk at tight end.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots are the cream of the crop. After boasting the top scoring defense in the league in 2016, they have only gotten stronger since. First, the Patriots were able to re-sign a pair of Second Team All-Pros in Malcolm Butler and Dont’a Hightower. The 27-year-olds are defensive leaders in their primes and should continue to shine for the Pats.
Furthermore, New England won the free agency battle for cornerback Stephon Gilmore, signing him to a five-year, $65 million contract this offseason. The former Buffalo Bill is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection and at age 26, is just entering his prime. Adding Gilmore across from Butler, the Pats boast one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. They also bolstered their front seven by trading for defensive end Kony Ealy, who shined in the few chances he was given on Carolina’s defense, recording 17 career sacks despite only starting 16 career games. Ealy was also the Panthers’ MVP in Super Bowl 50, tallying three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble.
If there’s any weakness on this Patriots team, it would be at running back. New England lost their 1,000-yard rusher in LeGarrette Blount and have not found an external replacement. However, Blount was not as valuable as he seemed. He averaged a measly 3.9 yards per carry, which would rank him tied for 27th out of 42 qualified backs. In fact, of the top 10 rushers last season, Blount had the lowest average yards per carry.
As a result, Blount was overutilized in New England’s rushing attack. The Patriots will now likely rely on Dion Lewis and James White, who averaged 4.4 and 4.3 yards per carry, respectively. But in today’s pass-happy league, the Patriots will likely depend less on their inexperienced rushers and more on Brady and their abundance of weapons.
As Brady nears the ripe age of 40, he continues to defy the odds with MVP-caliber play. This offseason, the Patriots have spent generously, upgrading their defense and receiving corps. They know Brady is mortal, although sometimes he may not seem it, and his time on the field is limited. For now though, age is merely a number and Brady will continue to rewrite the history books in 2017.
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