How much longer do you think Tom Brady will play?
If you’re a Patriots fan of any measure, you’ve either asked or answered this question. And trust me, if you’re a reporter or columnist who covers this team, you’ve asked or answered it, too. It’s the question that is both impossible to ignore but impossible to answer, at least by anyone other than the man himself. But it’s not unfair. At 42 years old, Brady only appears younger than he did as a rookie back in 2000. Father Time remains undefeated in sports. Brady cannot play forever.
Which means that eventually . . . at some point . . . someday . . . the Patriots will face the same conundrum that every other NFL team has across his tenure: How to pass the quarterback baton.
It is a question that has been particularly fascinating to me since the Patriots suffered their first loss, last Sunday night in Baltimore, when the superior play of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson did more than simply upend an undefeated team. Jackson’s emergence is a great example of a franchise getting that quarterback handoff just right, with a relatively seamless transition from Super Bowl-winning incumbent Joe Flacco to the 2018 first-round draft pick Jackson. When Jackson took over for an injured (and waning) Flacco last year and proved a more productive leader of the offense, head coach John Harbaugh made the decision to stick with him, even after Flacco was healthy enough to return.
When it became obvious Jackson was the better long-term option, too, with Harbaugh ignoring calls during the team’s playoff game to replace a mildly struggling Jackson with Flacco, Ravens GM Eric DeCosta traded Flacco to Denver in the off-season. Despite Flacco’s championship resume, the organization recognized it was time for a change, and as it stands, with Jackson adding a 7-2 record so far this season to last year’s 6-1 regular-season mark as a starter, who would argue?
Rarely does it work so smoothly. But as the NFL continues to get younger at quarterback, as offenses are tailored more than ever to the wide-open, run-pass-option styles preferred in the college game, it is definitely happening more often. So when is the right time to commit to a young QB?
“I think it’s easier to bring in a young quarterback now than ever before,” former NFL quarterback and current CBS/Showtime analyst Phil Simms said in a phone call this week. “The rules have changed. The receivers and running backs have changed. There are more screens and things, so many more options on offense so they can work around the quarterback more than ever before.
“And I think it definitely helps the young guys until they get a great feel how to do it. They just need time. We judge ’em too harshly and too quickly. This time last year, Lamar Jackson was awful, people were saying, ‘He’ll never play,’ and Baker [Mayfield] was the greatest thing ever in football. Think about that.”
The sophomore slump the Browns’ Mayfield is currently suffering through further proves the point of just how risky, but important, decisions on quarterbacks are. They alter franchises. Remember how the Giants completely botched their first transition from Eli Manning, benching him for retread Geno Smith? It was obvious Manning was on borrowed time this year, and when he faltered out of the gate, the move to first-round draft pick Daniel Jones was a no-brainer. Even with Manning staying on the high road and publicly supporting Jones, last year’s follies set the franchise back.
“Most of these things happen because the team is really bad and they go out and they draft, and we know what’s going to happen — it’s just a matter of time,” Simms said. “Did you think Eli was going to make it through the season this year? Of course not. There’s no way. Just like Baker Mayfield — did you think Tyrod Taylor was going to make it? Or in Buffalo, people saying [Josh Allen], ‘He’s so raw, he needs a year on the bench, sit him one or two or three years.’ He’d be on his third head coach before he gets on the field.”
The best situations are obviously born of choice rather than necessity. But for every handoff to Jackson or to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, whose supplanting of Alex Smith was largely predictable, there is debate over when to make a switch. Think Buffalo, or Miami, who can’t seem to find a starter no matter how many changes they make, or even the Browns and the Jets, two franchises dealing with sophomore slumps for Mayfield and Sam Darnold (though both won on Sunday). The road wasn’t so easy in Dallas a few years ago either, when Dak Prescott’s emergence in place of an injured Tony Romo did open a new career path for Romo in broadcasting (he’s an excellent analyst), but it was not done without bad feeling.
All the more reason Bill Belichick the coach is so content to insert Brady into the starting lineup each week, even while Belichick the general manager has made several attempts to stock the pipeline behind him. The two just never had the need nor opportunity to switch to Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett, who’ve gone on to lead the 49ers and Colts, respectively. But that time has to be coming at some point, right?
And the way that handoff happens will no doubt fascinate us all.