For Patriots QB Tom Brady, the fire seems to be burning just as deep as ever. (USA TODAY Images)
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady may be heading into the twilight of his career, but he doesn't sound much different from the player he's always been after putting together one of the most impressive stretches in the history of the franchise here in New England.
His approach hasn't changed. Although his team hasn't won a title since they last hoisted the Lombardi trophy back in 2005 following a 2004 season that was arguably one of their greatest team efforts, that drought only seems to continue fueling the fire of the man who essentially put the Patriots on the map after winning three in his first four years as a starter.
It may have been a while since their last championship, but that hasn't stopped New England from having quite a run over the last decade. Since 2003, this team has won double-digit games in every season, which in the NFL is an astounding achievement considering the restrictions every franchise faces thanks to the salary cap. Fans actually haven't even seen a losing season since back in 2000 (they went 5-11 that season), and since then the worst record this team has finished with was back in 2002 when they finished 9-7.
Over that span Brady has been at the helm for all but one, having suffered a knee injury in 2008 in the season opener that left him as nothing more than a spectator that year.
While he was gone, he married his wife Gisele Bundchen, and when he returned he had a new appreciation for the game he loved and realized how quickly it could all be taken away.
"The reality is in this sport, you really never know. ...Any day could be your last day in football," Brady told the Associated Press back in May of 2009. "You come out and it's a very physical game and I think you're just grateful for having a chance to compete in practice and be on a team and having a great job. I don't think about the end too often."
"(But) when you sit on the sidelines for an entire year, you realize how much you love it," Brady added. "Not that you need that to happen to be grateful to play, but you experience things in a much different way and a way that I never experienced as an athlete. I love being out here."
Despite missing all of 2008, Brady currently holds the fourth-longest consecutive game streak among active quarterbacks. (USA TODAY Images)
Aside from the knee injury, Brady has remained durable and has played in 80 consecutive regular season games, the fourth longest active streak among quarterbacks in the NFL. He trails only Eli Manning (151), Philip Rivers (129) and Joe Flacco (96) in that category, and he recently talked to SI.com's Peter King about a variety of topics, including the fact his commitment to his health and durability are at the forefront of his approach in making sure he's there for his team each week.
“It’s hard to explain this to people, but the commitment I make, in terms of keeping my body in shape and my nutrition right, should make me healthy," Brady told King. "I feel better today than when I was 25, and I know that’s hard for people to believe, but I do. I work at it. Basically, I work all off-season to prepare my body to not get hurt. I can’t help the team if I’m on the sidelines. I’ve got to be durable.”
What he does to make that happen is something he holds close to the vest. While he wouldn't reveal during his interview with King what that secret was, Brady said that the things he does are done with the hopes of making him a better player on the field and that's what people will ultimately judge him for.
“It’s all very well-researched,” Brady said. “But that’s for the other guys to figure out. I’m not going to give away any state secrets. I’m not here to be king of the weight room. I do things to make me a better quarterback, whatever they are. Does it work? You be the one to judge. Watch me play. Then draw your own conclusions.”
For now Brady will shortly enter into yet another year of organized team activities, and once again he'll have another young quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo in the mix. Garoppolo was another early round pick who some feel could one day replace Brady, but the veteran has already been in this position after the team also drafted Ryan Mallett in the third round back in 2011. Mallett is now likely on his way out after this season, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Brady leaves Garoppolo in the same position in the years ahead.
However, having been a player who unseated an established veteran himself, Brady's fully aware that should he begin not playing up to the team's lofty standards that he himself has set, the time could come where he's no longer the guy who Bill Belichick feels gives them the best chance to win.
That's why he's once again spending another offseason preparing for one more chance to get another championship before that day comes. He'll be 37 in August, which at that age the chances are there could be moments that could lead to those who will start critiquing every incompletion, every errant pass, or every turnover. However, that's not something Brady's worried about, and despite his age he told King, “You know, you don’t have to suck when you get older.”
As for quarterbacks who played at a high level late into their careers, one comparison can be made to Denver's John Elway, who retired at the age of 38 after winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999. He walked away at the top of his game and on the heels of two incredible years for the Broncos before hanging it up in what was an emotional press conference. Brady is now in that territory in terms of his age and recently tied Elway's mark of five Super Bowl starts at quarterback back in 2012.
We all know how Elway's career ended, but Elway also admitted at the time that there were injuries and ailments that lead to his decision to not take a shot at trying to get one more ring. His body told him it was time to call it quits, and as a result, he walked away in a manner that most players can only hope for.
"I have a chronic bad [left] knee," said Elway during his retirement press conference. "It got to the point where it was preventing me from doing the things I wanted to do. Last year, I fell on the football twice and hurt my ribs on both sides. I'd never done that before. Nagging things that used to go away in a week were lingering four and five weeks."
Elway was a running quarterback and had no issue diving for extra yards and sacrificing his body in doing so. Brady's earned the reputation for his effectiveness during quarterback sneaks, but he doesn't tend to put himself in positions to take the hits that Elway did. Whether or not he can continue doing the things to remain healthy will obviously be the question as he tries to extend his career, but the odds seem to be in his favor for him to play into his forties.
But for that to happen, he'll also need to continue playing at the same high level. He's been smart with the football over the past four seasons, having thrown fewer interceptions (4 in 2010, 12 in 2011, and 8 in 2012) than the 13 he threw in 2009. He threw 11 in 2013, and there were a few that were hard to put solely on his shoulders. Ill-advised throws and bad decisions are usually signs of deterioration in a quarterback's skills, and that's something Brady hasn't shown to this point.
Whether or not that changes remains to be seen. He probably won't be perfect, and as a result there will still likely be some whispers over the next few years about his future and whether or not the end is indeed getting closer.
Obviously nothing lasts forever, and what has transpired over his career here in New England is nothing short of remarkable. It's going to be hard to imagine not seeing him calling signals someday, but it sounds like he'll still be part of the game he loves in some fashion.
“There’s nothing that can wake me up at 5 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday in May like getting ready for a day of football," Brady told King. "I want to play a long time. There’s nothing I like doing that’s close to football. What’ll I do when I’m done playing? I don’t know, but I know it won’t be nearly as fun. I can tell you neither me nor Peyton [Manning] will probably be very far from the game of football when we’re done.”
Hopefully if all goes well it will be a while before we find out exactly what that is.