Early in January of 2015, at the outset of the NFL playoffs, someone asked Tom Brady what it would mean for him to win the Super Bowl “at this stage” of his career.
“This stage?” Brady shot back, indignant at the implication. “What does that mean? What stage is that?”
One month later, at age 37, Brady led what was at the time the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, leading the Patriots from 10 points down in the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter of a 28-24 victory over the Seahawks and the vaunted “Legion of Boom” defense.
On the day of that Super Bowl, there was a long profile in the New York Times on Brady, in which he discussed his esoteric training regimen and told journalist Mark Leibovich that there was no reason he couldn’t play at a high level into his 40s, perhaps as late as age 45.
People scoffed at the time. It was virtually unheard of for an NFL quarterback to play beyond the age of 40, never mind at a championship level. No one is scoffing any longer, or challenging Brady’s status as the greatest quarterback ever to play the game.
On Sunday night, at age 43, Brady won his seventh Super Bowl championship — in his 10th appearance in the NFL’s championship game — as Tampa Bay throttled the defending champion Chiefs, 31-9.
It was Brady’s fourth Super Bowl title since turning 37, his fourth ring in five trips to the big game since the infamous “Deflategate” controversy struck in the wake of the 2015 AFC title game.
What “stage” was he at that day? Evidently, Brady was only about halfway through his remarkable Super Bowl legacy. On Sunday, he captured his fifth Super Bowl MVP award, 19 years after winning his first one. Only one other man, Joe Montana, has won three.
It used to be fashionable to call Montana, who won four Super Bowls and never lost one, the greatest quarterback ever. Montana won his last Super Bowl at age 33. Brady has won it four times after age 37. He’s silenced the doubters, obliterated any debate over who’s the GOAT.
Brady is 34-11 in playoff games. Think about that. The Bills have played 34 post-season games in their history. Brady has appeared in more playoff games than all but five NFL franchises. His 34 playoff wins are more than twice as many as anyone else. Montana has 16.
It’s almost redundant to talk about playoff records. Brady is far and away the all-time leader in post-season passing yards (12,449), attempts (1,764), completions (1,106) and touchdown passes (83).
In his 10 Super Bowls, Brady has completed 277 of 421 passes (66 percent) for 3,039 yards, with 21 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Pro-rated over a full season, that would be 443 completions for 4,862 yards passing and 34 TDs. Keep in mind, he did much of it against some of the top defenses in the league.
Two years after the Seattle game, Brady orchestrated an even greater Super Bowl comeback, leading the Pats from a 28-3 deficit to an overtime win over the Falcons. A year later, he set a Super Bowl record of 505 yards passing in a loss to the Eagles.
By now, we should have learned never to underestimate him. During that 2014 season, after a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs on Monday night, Brady was asked if he was past his prime. The Pats promptly ran off seven wins in a row (starting with Bill Belichick’s infamous “on to Cincinnati quote) and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Brady wasn’t great on Sunday, but coldly efficient. He was 21-for-29 passing for 201 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He didn’t need to throw 50 times, as he did in the Seattle game six years ago, but you knew he would have been up to it if necessary.
Still, watching Brady orchestrate that touchdown drive at the end of the first half, you were reminded of the guy’s genius. He was in total control and made Chiefs coach Andy Reid look foolish for leaving time on the clock. Brady also showed his competitive character when he got in the face of volatile Bucks defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
There was criticism of the voters for giving Brady the MVP. But it was largely a recognition of his elevating presence in his first year away from the Patriots. The Bucs had talent before he arrived, but had gone 7-9 a year earlier and 5-11 each of the two seasons before that. He represented the quest for a higher competitive standard.
It’s hard to calculate what it meant to the Bucs to have a ruthless competitor and winner like Brady join them at this “stage” of his career. He has always viewed himself first as a teammate, showing the way for the other players. More than any statistic, that is his legacy.
Buffalo fans can hate him, and with good reason. He tormented the Bills for two decades, insulted the city’s hotels, broke fans’ hearts. But however grudgingly, you have to respect his greatness — while being thankful that he finally left the AFC East.
Brady completed 401 of 610 passes (66 percent) for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with 12 interceptions for the Bucs in the regular season, numbers that are strikingly similar to his career averages in Super Bowls.
If any normal quarterback had that sort of season, then followed it up with four playoff wins — beating Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes on his way to a Super Bowl win, you would assume he was smack in his athletic prime.
When was a spry 37, Brady talked about shattering existing conceptions of aging in athletes. It seemed like excessive pride when he said he could play until he was 45. He’ll be 45 in 18 months. Now they’re asking if he could play beyond that.
“I would definitely consider that,” Brady said during Super Bowl week.
At this stage, who’s going to doubt him?