Brady still Patriots' leading man

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a week-long series looking at the next decade in Boston sports.

"And now, introducing the offensive starters for the 2017 New England Patriots. At quarterback, in his 18th season, Tom Brady."

When the greatest player in franchise history looks into his crystal football, this is what he sees and what he hopes becomes reality.

Tom Brady wants to play until he is 40. He's said it over and over.

So when charting the primary difference-makers and direction of the Patriots franchise over the next decade, this is where it starts, at the game's most important position.

Have we seen the best of Brady? Or has he, at 32, recently taken the turn on his personal golf course, having played a terrific front nine and still being fully capable of duplicating it on the back side?

When reflecting on the 2009 season earlier this month, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said one of the highlights was seeing Brady return from his devastating knee injury and "get back to a place where he pretty well is functioning as one of the elite quarterbacks, which he surely is in the league."

Taking care of their top asset, in the form of both a contract extension and surrounding him with talent and a scheme to preserve and thrive, has to be near the top of the team's next-decade to-do list, which starts now.

Brady enters the final year of his contract for the first time in his Patriots career and is due to earn $3.5 million. A new contract could average anywhere from $15 million to $18 million per season and, even with the NFL's uncertain labor forecast, that figures to be the first Patriots domino to fall -- likely before the start of the 2010 season.

At that point, the question will become whether Brady's career can continue on an upward arc. Based on what has happened around the NFL in recent years, the most likely answer seems to be "Why not?"

Brett Favre, at 40, just put together one of his best seasons in helping the Minnesota Vikings earn a berth in the NFC Championship Game. Peyton Manning, nearing his 34th birthday, continues to play at a level that has some saying he's the best of all time. Kurt Warner, 38, retired Friday and can say that he played some of his best football in his final three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

"It's a different game now," said Steve Grogan, who played quarterback 16 seasons for the Patriots from 1975 to 1990 and was 37 when he retired. "I think it would be much easier to play until you are 40, physically, because of a lot of the rule changes that protect quarterbacks. They're not banged around as much as they were 25 years ago.

"Another eight years is a long way to go. Brett Favre is the only guy who has done it in a while. [Vinny] Testaverde did it well into his 40s. It wouldn't surprise me to see [Brady] go that long. I can't get in his head to know what he's thinking, but I watch him and know he has plenty of skills to continue to play the game."

In the end, Grogan believes that the length of Brady's career, which will dramatically shape the direction of the Patriots franchise over the next decade, will ultimately be decided by health and family considerations. Of the latter, Grogan recalled that toward the end of his career it was more difficult to make connections in the locker room.

"As I got older, I became more and more separated from the rest of the team. You get to your mid- to late 30s, and you're closer in age to the coaching staff than the rest of your teammates," Grogan said. "You have a wife and family at home, and it's time for training camp, that can start to become difficult. In that sense, it's just going to be a matter of preference, does he want to stay in and compete, or will he reach the point where he wants to be home with his wife and kids."

Jim Miller, whose NFL career spanned 11 seasons and who served as Brady's backup in 2004, watched how Brady maintained those connections behind the scenes. He believes that as long as Brady stays healthy, he should be able to overcome that age gap.

"A lot of people have accused Brett Favre of that, saying maybe he was disconnected from his team when he was with the Green Bay Packers, but I think you always try to ingratiate yourself into the locker room, and Tom is one of those guys," Miller said. "He knows how to develop those relationships and how he needs those guys around him to play at a level for him to have success and for the Patriots to have success.

"I don't want to call him a premier politician, but you somewhat have to do that as a quarterback, to get guys to believe in you and your ability. Certainly they know his résumé and play hard for Tom, but you tend to play harder for somebody when you have that personal relationship and have that connection to your teammates. It is a young man's sport, but Tom is pretty tactful in how he approaches it. I don't foresee that to be a problem with him."

A more likely problem is the unpredictability of injuries.

"First and foremost for a quarterback, your arm is your livelihood," Miller said. "Then you listen to other quarterbacks, people like Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms, and they always say your legs are the first to go. Everyone thinks it's just your arm, but it's really the drive in your legs and the core of your body where you generate the velocity on the football.

"Tom has always been diligent about working out, and I don't think that is something that will be a problem for him. He works out hard, keeps in great shape, that he actually might overwork himself too much. He's one guy I wouldn't count out of anything. He very well could play until he is 40."

If he does, Rich Gannon won't be surprised. Gannon, whose 17-year career, which began in 1987 and ended in 2004, when he was 39, said he believes Brady's smarts and mastery of the team's offense will help prolong his career.

"Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, they have been the Rock of Gibraltar at the position, and it's because they are very rarely surprised," he said. "You put the tape on, and you don't see a guy like Brady getting hit in the back of the head with the weak safety blitz that he didn't see coming, or Peyton Manning getting hit from behind because he didn't see the corner blitz off the short side from the left hash. That's a big reason why they're able to stay healthy and play at such a high level and that's why, if Tom Brady wants to play until he's 40, he could probably do it."

Gannon laughs when asked about the risk the Patriots might assume in committing a long-term contract to Brady at this time. While Brady wasn't as sharp in the decision-making process this season as he has been in the past, he remains one of the game's top quarterbacks.

"Let's not forget we're talking about a guy who came off major reconstructive knee surgery, and all he did was come back and lead his team to the playoffs and a division title," Gannon said. "He has three Super Bowl rings, and I think he still has some of his best football ahead of him.

"If I came back as a coach in this league and you said, 'You can have Tom Brady for the next 6-8 years,' the first thing I'd say is 'Where do I sign?' I'd rebuild my team with Tom Brady in terms of his leadership skills, his toughness, his determination, his experience and his ability to develop young players coming up through the system. He'd be the face of my franchise."

Brady was just that for the Patriots over the last decade.

Older, wiser and hoping to play until he's 40, he'll be that again this decade, his presence shaping the direction of the Patriots more than any other.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.