Tom Brady’s announcement on March 17 that he’d be leaving the New England Patriots and the announcement a few days later that he’d be signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were treated as major news events, even with the world in the grip of a pandemic. ESPN and NFL Network provided exhaustive coverage of the Brady saga, and some of Brady’s most memorable games were re-aired.
Frankly, it all seemed a bit much for a quarterback who’ll turn 43 before he takes his first snap for the Bucs. Yes, yes, Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game – THE greatest if you ask Ronnie from Roxbury or Sully from Southie.
But this isn’t like Randy Moss or Marshall Faulk changing teams in the prime of their careers. This is a quarterback nearing the end, and it’s just a matter of when the twilight turns to darkness.
What’s the likelihood that Brady has another good year or two left? We really don’t have a reliable roadmap for this sort of thing. We have a crude set of directions scribbled on a cocktail napkin.
Only four quarterbacks have played in the NFL at age 43 or older in the post-merger era: Steve DeBerg, Doug Flutie, Warren Moon and Vinny Testaverde. In 2007, Testaverde made six starts and seven appearances for the Panthers at age 44. He completed 54.7% of his throws that year, had five TD passes and six interceptions, and the Panthers went 2-4 in his starts. None of the other three QBs attempted more than 59 passes in their old-age seasons.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen two legendary quarterbacks careen over the age cliff like Thelma and Louise.
In 2009, 40-year-old Brett Favre threw for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns, finished QB3 in fantasy scoring and nearly led the Vikings to the Super Bowl. The following year, Favre averaged 193 passing yards a game, threw 11 TD passes and 19 interceptions, went 5-8 and was physically battered into retirement. His passer rating in 2009 was 107.2. His passer rating in 2010 was 69.9.
In 2014, 38-year-old Peyton Manning threw for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns, finished QB4 in fantasy scoring and led the Broncos to a 12-4 record. The following year, Manning averaged a career-low 224.9 yards a game, threw 9 TD passes and 17 interceptions, missed six regular-season games with a foot injury and yet somehow game-managed the Broncos to a championship despite three mediocre playoff performances. His passer rating in 2014 was 101.5. His passer rating in 2015 was 67.9.
Has Brady already veered dangerously close to the guardrail? Some key Brady numbers from the last two seasons:
There’s some worrisome slippage in those numbers. In fairness, Brady was bereft of weapons last season. WR Julian Edelman and RB James White combined for 45.5% of team receptions. Josh Gordon played only six games before being suspended, Antonio Brown played only one before being evicted, and the Patriots got almost nothing from their tight ends.
Lack of pass-catching weaponry won’t be a problem for Brady in Tampa. His new situation looks pretty delicious in that regard. Mike Evans is an established star, Chris Godwin an ascendant one. It’s the best WR tandem Brady has played with since the Randy Moss-Wes Welker combo. At tight end, O.J. Howard has latent talent that perhaps Brady could unlock, and Cameron Brate is a useful veteran.
But projecting big things for a quarterback based largely on the strength of his supporting cast is a dangerous game. With Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley as targets, it seemed like even an over-the-hill Eli Manning would be able to fall ass-backward into a top-12 fantasy finish in 2018. That didn’t happen, because Eli was cooked. He finished QB17 in fantasy scoring and QB21 in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts.
The effect of age is the biggest unknown in the Brady equation, but the design of the Buccaneers’ passing game is another.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, who wrote a book titled “The Quarterback Whisperer,” has an affinity for the vertical passing game. His “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy has usually required his quarterback to take deep drops and challenge defenses downfield. Brady’s average depth of target last year was 8.0 yards, according to PFF. Arians’ quarterback last year, Jameis Winston, had an aDOT of 10.9 yards.
It’s not that Brady is ineffective throwing deep. His deep-ball completion percentage of 41.7% last year ranked 9th in the league, according to PlayerProfiler.com, but he only ranked 15th in deep ball attempts. The greater concern with Brady as a deep passer might be his protection. How many seven-step drops is Brady going to take every week behind an offensive line that ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric last year? Arians isn’t so rigid that he won’t adjust his scheme to better suit Brady. But if the vertical stuff is dialed down significantly, Brady’s fantasy ceiling will be dialed down as well.
I don’t have a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict for Brady. I have him ranked QB13, which probably qualifies as cautious optimism despite Brady’s advanced age. In typical 12-team leagues, there isn’t that much risk to drafting Brady because he won’t come off the board until the 11th or 12th round, and if things don’t work out you can resort to streaming quarterbacks.
But in 2QB and superflex leagues, and in leagues with 14 or 16 teams, the QB position is more important, and the risk level with Brady is ratcheted up to a more uncomfortable degree. In those kinds of leagues, your willingness to draft Brady should be based on an honest assessment of your strength as an owner.
Allow me to dust off one of my favorite adages of fantasy football strategy: Strength loves certainty, weakness loves risk.
Are you the fisherman in your league, or are you the fish? If you’re a rabid, year-round fantasy football enthusiast who pays close attention to the NFL and usually makes it into the fantasy playoffs, a 43-year-old quarterback probably isn’t a smart risk proposition for you. But if you’re a more casual player who’s ceding an information advantage to other owners, it makes sense for you to embrace riskier assets with potentially big payoffs.
And if Brady is still Brady, even at age 43, the payoff could be pretty sweet.