MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The list of quarterbacks who have had success after their 40th birthday isn’t a long one, with Tom Brady in the midst of a 2017 season that is setting a new standard.
In more ways than one, it’s the same old Brady.
Brady’s MVP-caliber year sparked a question to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recently about other productive seasons authored by 40-year-old quarterbacks, with names such as Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Vinny Testaverde mentioned as part of the query. Belichick highlighted Testaverde because of his firsthand experience coaching him at three different points of his career, the final time coming in 2006 with the Patriots when Testaverde was 43 and signed midseason as the No. 3 option.
“In the end, it comes down to this is a production business, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re 22, 32, 42," said Belichick, who has long held Testaverde in high regard, citing his uncommon athleticism even at the latter stages of his career. "If you’re not productive, you’re probably not long for the league. If you’re productive, there’s a place.”
Brady’s productivity in 2017 has been off the charts.
Entering Week 14, which concludes with Monday Night Football with Brady and the Patriots at the Miami Dolphins (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), Brady's 3,632 passing yards led the NFL, and he should pass Moon (3,678 in 1997) for the most passing yards in a season by a player after turning 40. Brady’s 26 passing touchdowns were tied for second in the NFL with Seattle’s Russell Wilson, as only the Eagles’ Carson Wentz (29) had more. And Brady’s four interceptions are tied for the fewest among quarterbacks who have had at least 200 pass attempts this season.
Having spent the final three months of the 2006 season alongside Brady in New England, Testaverde isn’t surprised at the results.
“Being around Tom for that short period, I saw how hard he works. It’s a lifestyle of working out, eating right, taking care of your body, getting the treatments when you get the little nagging injuries,” Testaverde said from his Florida home, where he has been retired since the end of the 2007 season. “Obviously, you have to avoid some serious injuries, which -- knock on wood -- I did in my career. Tom has, as well.
“It’s just putting in the time, and working at it. Once you get to a certain age and then you decide that you want to work out and try to have your career continue, it’s too late. So it has to start at a younger age, and it has to be a lifestyle. I think Tom, from what I’ve been reading and hearing about, his dieting and workout programs have him ahead of the game.”
Testaverde started the entire season for the Dallas Cowboys when he was 41 in 2004. He also started six games for the Carolina Panthers when he was 44 in 2007.
When Testaverde signed with New England in November 2006, it marked the third time that he was on a team with Belichick on the coaching staff -- preceded by his time as a starter with the Cleveland Browns (1993-95), then the New York Jets in the late 1990s.
“Having coached Vinny in Cleveland, his [seventh] year in the league, and then at the Jets [in 1998], and then a decade later from Cleveland to here, you’re still talking about, to this day, a rare athlete -- size, speed, not to mention throwing mechanics and technique, lower-body strength, upper-body strength, could run. The guy could have probably played linebacker, defensive end, running back, quarterback, tight end, safety if that’s where he had trained,” Belichick said.
“Those guys don’t just come along every day now. If you’re talking about a guy like that [who] had a long career, that wasn’t shocking to me because of how exceptionally gifted Vinny was, and he was an extremely hard worker. I’d say that very confidently about him.”
Brady doesn’t fall into the same category when it comes to pure athleticism, but he obviously makes up for it, and then some, in other areas.
Speaking from the rare perspective of a former 40-year-old starting quarterback who also spent a half-season with Brady a decade ago, Testaverde highlighted one of them.
“Aside from being a great competitor, I think what impresses me about Tom is his mechanics and throwing motion. He throws with what I call effortless power,” Testaverde said. “To this day, at 40 years old, he probably still has one of the strongest arms in the league.
“I don’t think people give him enough credit for that, because I don’t think they see it on an every-play basis where he’s throwing the football [like that]. He might take a little off on a shorter route and then have to throw it a little harder on a deeper route. Whereas some other players, they have one speed, whether it’s a short or long pass.
“Tom has the ability to have that effortless power and very little flawed motion, if you will. I think that’s why he’s able to stand tall in the pocket and not have to really get everything behind it to make a throw, and take that long stride like you see a lot of guys do, and that elongated throwing motion. He doesn’t have that. Even though he’s a tall, long lanky guy, he still has a tight, compact throwing motion, which I love to watch.”
Brady has fond memories of his time with Testaverde in 2006. Prior to Testaverde’s arrival, it had been Brady and Matt Cassel in the quarterback room.
“So two young guys, and to have someone who was really a veteran; he brought a lot of experience, a lot of stability, a lot of confidence to the room,” Brady said. “He was just a great mentor for me, and we’ve always kept in touch. I really enjoyed my time with him.”
For Brady, it was the second straight year he had been around a quarterback in his 40s, as Doug Flutie, then 43, had been with the Patriots in 2005.
“To play with those two, it was very unique,” Brady recalled. “I learned a lot from both of them.”
Brady said a common link between Testaverde and Flutie was their work ethic and passion for the game, even at that age, which is what many say about Brady today.
For Testaverde, the focus on his age at that stage of his career could sometimes be a mental drain. He sees Brady handling that part well.
“The toughest thing outside of the physical aspect is everyone talking about it. You hit that 40 number and everyone wants to talk about it, and if you allow it to creep into your mind, it becomes a distraction,” Testaverde said.
“You have enough challenges as you go forward with the season, just the recovery time of the game and going through the week, so there are plenty of things you’re trying to get through mentally. The last thing you want to be hearing about is people talking about your age. As much as you try to avoid it, and not read or listen, you always hear somebody -- whether it’s a family member or friends, a news article or turn on the TV, it seems like it’s always there. You just have to be mentally strong enough to just use it as fuel for your fire. I know Tom is.”
Testaverde said he tried to embrace being the oldest player on the team, and it became a way to bond with teammates at times. Similar to how Patriots players have ribbed Brady about having a padded office chair at his locker this year, Testaverde remembered his final stop at the Jets and how linebacker Jonathan Vilma affectionately called him “Uncle” and “Grandpa.”
“It was kind of neat if you take pride in doing something that very few people in the NFL have ever done -- play at the age of 40 or older,” he said. “So I always embraced that and took pride in the fact I was able to play what some might say is a young man’s game.”
Although there were times his age became a point of tension at one of his stops.
“There was one point when there was a little confrontation with a player and myself. He was telling me, ‘This is a young man’s game.’ He was actually being disrespectful to me,” Testaverde said. “And I told him, point blank, ‘No, no, you’re mistaken. This is a man’s game. Whether you’re young or old has nothing to do with it. If you can be productive, you belong, so don’t make a mistake -- it’s a man’s game.’”
Brady has said he hopes to play until his mid-40s, which is when Testaverde called it a career after starting six games for the Panthers in 2007. Testaverde said he retired to spend more time with his family, not because his physical condition was betraying him, and believed he had another couple of years in which he could have been productive.
As for Brady, Testaverde said, “It’s hard for me to know what his body feels like. He’s played more games than I had, but at the same time, from just eyeballing it from TV and listening to him, if he decides he wants to make a run for five or six more Super Bowls, I think he can do it.
“It’s just a mindset, it’s up to him how hard he wants to work at it in the offseason. There is a lot that goes into it. Sitting here talking about it in a few minutes [of an interview] just makes it seem like nothing. But it’s a 100 percent commitment of trying to accomplish the goals he sets for himself. It takes a lot.
“Obviously, the older you get, the harder it is to maintain that same level. But barring any serious injury, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t play as long as he wants to.”