Don’t focus on when Tom Brady will stop excelling, but appreciate the fact he still is
Tom Brady’s place as the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL was secured beyond a doubt with the comeback victory over the ferocious Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
Since then, he has engineered a comeback from a 28-point deficit against the Falcons to win Super Bowl LI in overtime, then began collecting championship rings for a second hand with the Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams in February.
Anyone who wants to tell you it’s someone other than Brady either wears cheese for a hat, has Archie Manning among his favorite phone contacts, or is hosting a debate show that no one outside of the doofus hosts takes seriously.
Every other quarterback in NFL history is like every other team in the AFC East during the Brady/Bill Belichick dynasty: They’re all playing for second.
I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, we marvel at what Brady does, but I’m not sure we marvel enough at how long he has been doing it.
The Patriots officially open training camp July 25, which will mark the 20th camp of his career. When he showed up in 2000 as a scrawny sixth-round pick, his teammates included tackle Bruce Armstrong, whose career began in 1987, and punter Lee Johnson, who turns 58 years old this year.
Bill Belichick was 48, or just six years older than Brady will turn in August. That blows my mind.
The second reason I bring up Brady’s place in history is this:
I’m vowing to do my best this season to appreciate him in the moment and avoid speculating on when he actually will be history.
We all know the truth. What he’s trying to do — play quarterback at an extremely high level at such an advanced age — is unprecedented in NFL history. He’s past the age when even Warren Moon and Brett Favre were effective.
There have been times in recent seasons — usually when he had an undisclosed injury — when he wasn’t sharp and we immediately wondered if we were seeing the beginning of the decline.
The lesson has been learned over the last, oh, five or so years, if not his career as a whole: Doubt Brady at any age at your own peril.
If he really does slip noticeably, and there are a few miles per hour off the fastball, of course we’ll write about it. But I’m going to need a Ted Washington-sized pile of evidence of his decline to believe it.
And in the meantime I’m going to do my best to avoid playing the Are There Cracks In The Foundation? game when he throws just two touchdown passes in an unexpectedly tight win over the Jets.
Too much time has been spent in recent years wondering when Brady will stop excelling rather than appreciating that he still is.
A few other thoughts on the Patriots while we wait for training camp to arrive . . .
■ When Rob Gronkowski retired in March after weeks of speculation about his status, I immediately joined the group of Patriot watchers speculating about something else: When he might return. I’m not with ’em anymore, though. Gronk has lost enough mass that he looks practically waifish by his usual standards, and you have to imagine the downsizing has him feeling great physically. It’s still a bummer that such a special career is over, but at least he got a special ending. The diving catch in triple coverage on the winning drive in the Super Bowl is a hell of a final memory to have of the player.
■ During his first go-round with the Patriots from 2004-09, I never would have pegged Benjamin Watson to be someone who would still be playing at age 38 (he turns 39 in December). He had ability and smarts, and Champ Bailey can tell you how determined he was, but he was too inconsistent as a receiver to be someone who would last well into a second decade as a player. He was already in his seventh season when Gronk was a rookie.
■ Fun question I saw kicking around on Twitter a while back: If you could pluck any Patriots player in history and add him in his prime to the current roster, who would it be? I suspect the consensus choice would be John Hannah, the greatest guard in NFL history. But he’d be third on my list, behind Andre Tippett (Belichick would love coaching him almost as much as he loved coaching Lawrence Taylor) and Stanley Morgan (the most underrated receiver in NFL history).
■ The correct answer when someone asks you whether Julian Edelman or Wes Welker is the greatest slot receiver in Patriots history is this: Neither. It’s Troy Brown. All right, so Edelman — who now owns a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player trophy to go with all of his enormous clutch plays through the years — probably deserves the nod. But Brown got this legacy and tradition started, and I don’t believe there’s a receiver in franchise history who made more big-moment plays than he did in 2001.
■ Maybe this is weird, but I’ve always thought it was cool when a new player comes along and does a previous great player’s jersey number justice with a performance similar in style and substance. Rob Ninkovich did it with Mike Vrabel’s No. 50. Dont’a Hightower absolutely does it with Tedy Bruschi’s No. 54. And Stephon Gilmore did it last year with Ty Law’s No. 24.
■ Anquan Boldin is ninth all-time in receptions (1,076), 14th in receiving yards (13,779), and tied for 24th in receiving touchdowns (82). He’s 38 years old, hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016, and I still believe he could get 9 yards on a crucial third and 8 right now. So, yeah, if he’s going to be the comp for N’Keal Harry, that works for me.