FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the 12th offensive play of the game in his much-anticipated return to Gillette Stadium, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady found wide receiver Mike Evans on a crossing pattern for a 28-yard reception in the 19-17 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday that propelled him into the record books.
Brady overtook Drew Brees to become the NFL’s all-time career passing yards leader with 80,560.
Brees clinched the record on Oct. 8, 2018 with an epic 62-yard touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith in the Superdome in New Orleans. Before that, the record belonged to Peyton Manning since Nov. 15, 2015 and was Brett Favre’s since Dec. 16, 2007.
But when might we see it fall again?
Even with the NFL moving to a 17-game regular season (the record counts only regular-season passing yards), it may be awhile -- especially if Brady continues to play. He’s indicated he may be open to playing past age 45 and possibly even until he’s 50.
Taking the closest active quarterbacks on the list, ESPN Statistics & Information simulated models on how long it would take for them to catch Brady. For purposes of this exercise, we did two projections: Brady playing through the 2022 season, which is when his current contract ends with the Bucs, and should he decide to play even longer, we pushed it to 2023.
First, we took the average number of passing yards per game over the last five seasons for Brady to get an estimate of what his numbers would look like after both the 2022 and 2023 seasons. From 2017-2021, Brady averaged 279.09 yards per game, so if he played through 2022, his number would be 88,930 yards. If he played through 2023, it’d be 93,673 yards.
Then we identified the players closest to Brady, subtracted their current career totals from each of Brady’s two projected totals and divided those by each player’s five-season yards per game average. We also took that value, subtracted it by 13 (games remaining in 2021) and divided it by 17 to get the number of seasons to catch Brady.
This exercise assumes all play the remaining games this year and 17 games each season after, although the chances of that happening in a contact sport, even with NFL leaning more and more towards protecting the quarterback, makes that unlikely that one plays in every single game.
Here's a quick look:
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (39), the next closest active player, has 61,381 career passing yards through Week 4. Given his five-year average of 280.1 yards per game, it would take him 98 more games, or five more seasons, to catch Brady if Brady retired after the 2022 season. If Brady continued through 2023, he would need 115 games and six seasons to catch him.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (36) is after Roethlisberger, with 56,757 career passing yards through Week 4. With his 284.42 average, he would need 113 more games or 5.9 more seasons to catch Brady if Brady kept this pace through 2022, and 130 games and 6.9 seasons to catch Brady through 2023.
But, of course, this math doesn’t take into account such things as injuries, age, performance decline, changing teams or changing offenses.
Because of an extensive injury history, Roethlisberger has 237 regular-season games in 18 seasons. There’s been recent decline too. He went from averaging 320.56 yards per game in 2018 to 253.53 yards per game in 2020 and has struggled in 2021, unable to make the plays outside the pocket he once used to.
Ryan, on the other hand, is far easier to project and may be the best bet to break Brady’s record. The last time he didn’t pass for 4,000 yards in a season was 2010. He’s adapted to every type of offense, and he’s also only missed three career regular-season games.
Matthew Stafford’s an intriguing one because of his career resurgence with the Los Angeles Rams at the age of 33. A strong supporting cast and a pairing with Sean McVay may have changed the trajectory of his career. It was hard to fathom him playing for nine more seasons if he remained in Detroit. Now? Perhaps it’s possible.
We also looked at younger players to see how long it would take them to catch Brady.
For Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (26), if he continues to average 307.4 yards per game -- the most of any of today’s players -- it would take him 239 games (13.3 seasons) to catch Brady if Brady retired after 2022 and 255 games (14.2 seasons) if he retired after 2023.
For Los Angeles Chargers second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who averages 294 yards per game, it would take him 284 games (16 seasons) if Brady retired after the 2022 season, or 301 games (16.9 seasons) if he plays through 2023.
And just for fun, let’s take ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper’s No. 1 quarterback on his Big Board for the 2022 draft, Liberty’s Malik Willis. Taking his per game average over the last two years to the pros (223.67), it would take him 23.39 seasons (397.59 games) to catch Brady if Brady played through 2022 and 24.64 seasons (418.80 games) to match him.
To put it simply, to catch Brady in 20 seasons, it would take him 261.56 yards per game if he started from Day 1 and never missed a game.