New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was asked a few years ago how long he’d like to play in the NFL, and the five-time Super Bowl champion responded he’d “like to play until my mid-40s.” That appeared to be a tall order considering there have been five quarterbacks besides Brady who have thrown at least 200 passes in the NFL after age 40. But Brady is no ordinary quarterback. He hasn’t missed a regular-season start because of injury since returning from an anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered during the first game of the 2008 season.
That enduring health may help sell the TB12 diet and his belief in muscle pliability, but his absence of injuries more likely is the result of this simple fact: Tom Brady doesn’t get hit like other NFL quarterbacks.
During the 2018 regular season, Brady was sacked 21 times and hit two other times in 596 dropbacks, resulting in a hit rate of less than 4 percent. The league average is roughly double that.
New England’s pass protection was one of the best in the league — it ranked fifth overall, according to Pro Football Focus and first according to Football Outsiders — but there were lean years, too. In 2014 the Patriots’ pass-blocking unit ranked last per PFF, but Brady’s hit rate was still below average. Only twice since 2009 has Brady been hit and sacked as often than the league average among quarterbacks. And twice in the past three years, he’s been substantially lower than the average.
The benefit of staying upright in the pocket is better performance, naturally. Overall, quarterbacks see their passer rating drop from 105.3 to 69.0 when facing pass pressure this season, which is roughly the difference in performance between Philip Rivers and rookies Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. Brady’s passer rating dropped from 103.7 to 71.7 when facing pressure in 2018, but he was harassed on only 26 percent of his dropbacks during the regular season; only Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees enjoyed a cleaner pocket. Brady hasn’t been sacked this postseason and has been hit just once despite facing some of the best edge rushers in the game — Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Los Angeles Chargers and Dee Ford and Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brady also helps himself. He took an average of 2.5 seconds to throw in 2018, the fifth-fastest among 30 qualified quarterbacks, and his passer rating when throwing the ball that fast or faster was 102.0 compared to 92.6 when taking 2.6 seconds or more in the pocket.
It is hard to overestimate the physical toll an increased number of hits can take on a quarterback, especially one over the age of 40. Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre saw his hit rate increase from 4 percent during his last year with the Green Bay Packers in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2008 with the New York Jets, 6.7 percent in 2009 during his first year with the Minnesota Vikings and over 7 percent in 2010, his last year in the league. Favre was hit or sacked once out of every 15 dropbacks after turning 40 years old; Brady has been hit once out of every 19 dropbacks. Matt Hasselbeck suffered a hit or sack once every 15 dropbacks in 2015 as a 40-year-old and then retired later that season.
“The thing about Tom Brady is this: we hate to see him in the Super Bowl year after year, but when he’s gone, that greatness we’re going to miss because we’ve given him so much hate,” Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy said Wednesday on ESPN’s “First Take. “It’s the same thing with LeBron [James]. You’ve got to appreciate the greatness because he’s 40 years old and still playing at a high level.”
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