Tom Brady has come full circle. At age 37, he is right back where he began his NFL career — having his ability doubted.
Brady is no longer a scrawny, anonymous sixth-round pick. He is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, a two-time league MVP and a three-time Super Bowl winner.
His name has become synonymous with superlative quarterback play and dashing style. But doubt is doubt, and even with a list of accomplishments longer than “War and Peace,” Brady is fueled by those doubts.
The great debate of the Patriots’ offseason was whether Brady, now entering his 15th NFL season, was a deity in decline. Whether the ravages of time and NFL defenders with malevolent intentions had taken their toll on TB12.
Proponents of the decline theory point to Brady’s numbers from last season as evidence. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes, his lowest since 2003. He was sacked 40 times, the most since 2001. He threw 25 touchdown passes, his lowest number since 2006, when his wide receivers created less separation than a pair of hands folded in prayer.
The official Declaration of Brady Declination came from Pro Football Focus in June. The website committed heresy, making the case with in-depth statistical analysis that Brady was no longer among the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.
He was faltering when pressured and losing some of his trademark composure in the pocket when forced to hold the ball, never mind that he had been asked to tutor rookie wideouts and only had tight end Rob Gronkowski for seven games.
Brady has always tended to internalize slights, whether they came as the backup quarterback on the freshman team at Junipero Serra High School, as a time-share quarterback at the University of Michigan, from NFL Draft scouting reports, or now media pundits.
“Those things end up making up your character,” said Brady. “You can always tap into those things when you’ve got to dig deep to see what you’re all about and use those things as a way to motivate you and to inspire you to do better.
“After going into my 15th year, I use everything I can get to motivate me. Yeah, I do internalize things, and yeah, those things come out when it matters. The ultimate goal is winning, and it’s team wins. That’s always been my best tool to motivate me. If you’re not in here to win, you won’t be in the NFL very long.”
The irony of critiques focused on Brady’s aging are that his whole offseason training regimen with the man he calls his “body coach,” Alex Guerrero, is designed to sustain what Brady calls peak performance and stiff-arm the aging process.
Ask anyone, including Brady, what Guerrero does and the answers are vague, even by Patriots standards.
Guerrero works with Brady on body work, nutrition, neuromuscular programming, and brain training, according to a July 2013 Men’s Health magazine article.
Think of Guerrero as the Sherpa who guides Brady to peak performance. The guy who is going to allow Brady to execute his plan to play into his 40s. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick has confidant and football savant Ernie Adams as his secret weapon, Brady has Guerrero.
Brady said he feels there is a competitive advantage working with Guerrero.
“Absolutely,” said Brady. “It’s hard because he doesn’t do one thing. I don’t think you can really put him into a box because there is no box with Alex. I think it’s about getting your body and your mind prepared to be at your best. So, you can’t put a label on what he does. He has so many skills. There are no limits that I think you can put on that.”
Brady doesn’t put any limits on his game and his longevity. But NFL history does. John Elway, at age 38, remains the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Despite excruciatingly close calls in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, Brady has not won that elusive fourth Super Bowl. He won his first 10 playoff games and is 8-8 since.
Does Brady ever watch film and see a throw he would have made or a hit he would have avoided were he in his late 20s, not his late 30s?
Brady paused at the question, like he was surveying a defense.
“Um . . . you know it’s, I don’t really kind of compare it like that,” he said. “I don’t know. That’s for other people to judge. I feel like I’m trying to go out there and be the best I can be. Things that I used to do, or things that I can do now, I don’t think about those things. Those don’t really come into my mind.
“Hopefully, I just keep getting better. That’s what I’m hoping I do. Whether I do or not, that’s for other people to judge. That’s not really how I gain my satisfaction.”
The truth is Brady is never satisfied. It is what makes him great. He is always chasing ghosts of greatness, real and imagined.
Brady has played 219 games, including the playoffs, and it’s fair to assume he has taken more than 1,000 hits.
Former teammate Logan Mankins said he knows Brady has played games when he probably shouldn’t have.
“Physically, he is always out there for games,” said Mankins, a few weeks before being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He has taken shots. I’m talking about big shots in games, and he stays out there. He has played through injuries. He always gets up. We respect him in that regard. And mentally he is as tough as there is. He is just an all-around tough guy.”
It is possible that the greatest threat to Brady’s career isn’t biology, but the bloodless decision-making of his coach, the man for which he has started 191 regular-season games, an NFL record for a coach-quarterback combination.
The Patriots drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo this May, using a second-round pick.
When Belichick discussed the pick, he referenced Brady’s age and contract situation. Brady has four years left on his deal, which is concurrent with Garoppolo’s contract, expiring after the 2017 season.
Does Brady think he will retire a Patriot?
“I really hope so, and I hope I play well for a long time,” said Brady. “That’s why I work hard at it. Is it easy to do? Absolutely not. But nothing is easy to do . . . I’m a competitive person. I’ve had to compete my whole life, so it is really nothing new for me.
“I’m ready to go this year. Beyond this year, no player knows anything beyond this year. But in my own long-term goals and what motivates me, I absolutely want to play here. There is no place I’d rather play. It’s the only place I know, and hopefully I can be the best I can be here for a long time.”
Brady has made a career out of bucking the odds and sticking around longer than expected.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.