Brady loves nothing better than a “clean” pocket, which you can see from those elegant, bowing 18 touchdown passes in just seven games and his overall unmussedness, the lack of grass stains on his back. Just look at the ruler straightness of his eye black. That takes a certain amount of care. Who drew those things? Karl Lagerfeld?
As Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enter Monday night’s game at the New York Giants, they have gone eight straight quarters without allowing a sack, and as far as anyone can tell from film, an opponent has touched him just once in that time. This is not merely clean play; it’s immaculately lint-free. What you get, when you give a 43-year-old with his know-how some unbothered extra time and space and combine it with his seething defiance of prognosticators who said he was past it, is a 5-2 contender on a shiny new team in a sunny new city. As opposed to what his opponents had hoped: a creased, crumpled, limping figure of pity on his way to retiring.
As Brady remarked to his close friend Jim Gray, “Retiring to what?” Here’s the problem for Brady’s rivals, who wish he would quit chasing Super Bowls and go play bad, paunchy golf: “The only thing that gets me really excited is winning football games,” he said this past week.
It’s an interesting question why the sports realm is so intolerant of athletes who try to play past their physical prime. There’s a weird primal unwillingness to watch them age. We hurry them off the stage, warning them not to “taint” their legacy by deteriorating publicly in front of our pained eyes, and abbreviate what could be some fascinating third acts. Brady is not ready to make the inevitable concession to the widening middle and recessed hairline that comes with the 40s — and why should he be? Retirement is a fraught, complex passage for anyone. It’s especially so for athletes. As Bill Bradley once said, “An athlete has two deaths.” In what other field must someone give up their calling in their 40s?
“We become so familiar with them yet so unforgiving of a bad game, a bad pass,” observes Gray, who chronicles his friendship with Brady and other champions in an engaging new memoir titled “Talking to GOATs.” “I don’t think we have a lot of patience for a guy who has a game that looks like maybe he’s fading. We get this impression of them in our head, and then when it doesn’t happen we think that’s the end because they’re at that age.”
In retrospect that’s exactly what happened to Brady after 20 years with the New England Patriots: The expectation that he must deteriorate significantly past the age of 40 became more powerful than his actual performance, coloring perceptions. It’s clear now that Brady wasn’t fading and still had an arm — after all, he threw for 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions on a playoff team in 2019. He was simply on a squad lacking weapons in the midst of a rebuild, and Coach Bill Belichick’s voice had worn thin with him. If he wanted to compete, he had to find a new and more loaded team and a coach willing to explore uncharted boundaries with him.
“When we watched him last year, he could still make every single throw,” Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians says. “He hasn’t disappointed anybody in that regard. We have no concern about calling any kind of play from five yards to 60 yards.”
Of course he was always going to seek out a sequel. “He just doesn’t think the cake is fully baked yet,” Gray says. Whatever else Brady does this season, he has already established that athletic aging is not a matter of indignity and can be significantly postponed with pure discipline and application. His meticulous planning for this stage of his career can no longer be mocked: It’s what all the smoothies and pliability and sugar-is-the-devil austerity have really been about — not just performance in the moment but extension. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, the former New England teammate who came out of retirement to join him in Tampa, says: “There’s no surprise to me that he’s at this age and still playing at a high level; he’s been telling me for quite some time that he’s going to be playing at a high level until he stops playing. I’ve been seeing it firsthand with my eyes how he takes care of himself.”
For a time, it seemed Brady’s determination to play on wouldn’t be flattering. He was clearly awkward in his first two games with Tampa Bay, when he threw three interceptions to three touchdown passes. But since then he has flung 15 more scoring passes, and he already has six completions of more than 30 yards — compared with five all of last season. His field awareness has arguably never been better: He has hit six receivers for at least two touchdowns, a better array than any other quarterback in the league. And he has done it as coolly as straightening a tie.
But most dazzling is his ruthlessness when his team comes anywhere near the end zone. The Buccaneers have been in 20 first-and-goal situations — and scored touchdowns every single time. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that in my 27 years in this league,” Arians marvels.
In short, Brady’s contribution to the Bucs is more than physical or numerical. His exactingness and workaholism have given the franchise an uplift that is hard to measure but undeniably impactful. “This guy, he set the tone of an entire organization,” says Giants Coach Joe Judge, who worked with Brady in New England for several years. Just look at Brady’s instant influence on Tampa Bay’s execution. During a loss to Chicago, he was snap-jawed and furious over three sacks and a raft of penalties by his offensive line. “It definitely wakes you up, big time; it makes you more alert, makes you get on your toes, and you just got to take it gracefully,” Gronkowski says. The result: not a single penalty, turnover or sack the following week in a rout of the Green Bay Packers.
Gray recalls how Brady once talked with a pro golfer who had played a poor round and strolled off saying, “Sometimes that’s just how it goes.” Brady couldn’t believe the guy didn’t go to the range to fix it. “There’s no that’s just how it goes,” he said.
The combination of temperament that can’t tolerate a shirttail out, a body still so seemingly youthful that he looks like he has doll skin and a mind that has “probably more perspective than just about every player in the league right now based on my years of experience and what I’ve seen,” as Brady says, is a formidable one. According to Giants safety Logan Ryan, it makes Brady “the final boss” of the NFL, the ultimate monster you meet in the final stage of a video game when “they have hammers and cannonballs and everything going off. ... He presents every threat to you possible.”
For now, and for the foreseeable future, Brady will continue playing his game inside the game: beating conventional wisdom, sustaining his act of defiance against nature and statistics. In a foreword to Gray’s book, Brady wrote a telling statement: “To my mind, it’s not what people do in their twenties that leads to greatness or a lasting legacy. It’s what they keep doing, year after year.”