BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The idea seems so obvious that it’s hard to imagine a rebuttal to it. An athlete who makes his living by throwing a ball will find it more difficult to excel at his craft with age. Time erodes strength. With that, a player loses the ability to throw the ball for distance with velocity and accuracy.
That notion seems particularly obvious in football, given the physical punishment that is part of the sport’s fabric. Yet Tom Brady has found a way not merely to sustain his ability to throw a football, but he arguably has achieved a Benjamin Button-like reversal of the aging process.
Through ongoing consultation with Tom House, an expert in the biomechanics of throwing, Brady has made the necessary physical adjustments — whether with his footwork or his arm, head, and hand positioning, among other elements — to sustain his ability to deliver the ball.
“Nolan Ryan didn’t have the best arm of any pitcher I ever worked with,” said House. “Neither does Tom Brady. What they had was the ability to throw hard easily, to throw accurately. What the elite, elite Hall of Famers and superstars do, they learn to adapt and accommodate what they need to do to maintain their strength in competition.”
Brady credits his work with House as part of what has allowed him to sustain his performance across seasons.
“Throwing the football is a skill; you have to work at it,” said Brady. “If you start, let’s say at 100 percent, and your mechanics go off 2 percent a week, when you’re eight weeks into the season, you’re 15 percent off. That’s a big difference between winning and losing.
“I’m so critical of myself and my fundamentals. I really want them to be perfect whenever they can be. [House] has been so important helping me understand what I need to do in order to achieve that.”
At the end of Peyton Manning’s career, he succeeded in spite of obviously diminishing functional strength when it came to throwing a football. He could still read the field and throw accurately, but he often delivered ducks to the right spot.
That’s not what Brady is doing. To the contrary, Brady is showing a willingness to throw with an effectiveness and aggressiveness that surpass what he’s done for much of the last decade.
According to research from TruMedia Networks, a Boston-based analytics company that works with teams in multiple sports, Brady is throwing the ball downfield with greater frequency than he has at any point since the NFL started tracking air yards (the number of yards a ball travels in the air relative to the line of scrimmage) in 2006.
This year, Brady’s average throw traveled 9.09 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, up from an 11-year low of 7.76 in 2016. Of his NFL-leading 581 attempts, 36.1 percent traveled at least 10 air yards.
More often than not, he was on the money with such passes. Brady completed 54.3 percent of his passes of 10 or more air yards, the third-highest mark of his last 12 seasons, while posting a passer rating of 103.0 on passes of that depth — an elite mark, even if down from his career-best 123.6 rating on such passes in 2016.
Those numbers show a quarterback working downfield more than at virtually any other point of his career, and whose effectiveness in doing so ranked with the best seasons he’s had since at least 2006.
His sustained ability to throw the ball downfield stands in contrast to someone like Manning, who in his final year completed just 44.2 percent of passes of 10 or more air yards while forging a 66.2 rating on those throws, or Brett Favre, who posted passer ratings below 70 on passes of that distance in three of his final five years.
Personnel changes have been part of the reason for Brady’s downfield turn. The addition of deep threat Brandin Cooks and the loss of Julian Edelman have played a role in where Brady has thrown the ball. Of course, the mere fact that the Patriots were willing to invest in a field-stretching threat like Cooks suggests the team’s confidence in Brady’s ability.
“We have always tried to do what’s best with the players we have available,” said receivers coach Chad O’Shea. “Tom does such a great job at a lot of things. One of the things he’s really done this year is throw the ball down the field. To throw to all areas of the field is just beneficial to the offense.”
It’s something that is made possible only because Brady has figured out, in the words of House, how to “retrain, re-pattern nerves and muscles within the current window to make sure they can sustain that level of excellence.”
That ability, House suggested, is a hallmark of those who render assumptions about age irrelevant while sustaining Hall of Fame-level play into their 40s – something that he has seen before in Ryan (for whom House was the pitching coach with the Rangers), and is now seeing in Brady and Drew Brees.
“Tom Brady and Drew Brees are the closest to Nolan Ryan as anybody I’ve ever worked with,” said House, who was Ryan’s pitching coach with the Rangers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I don’t think there’s a higher compliment.”
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