SALT LAKE CITY — Time is the one rival athletes can never beat. It is relentless and insidious. It erodes muscle mass, chips away at speed, coordination and strength, slows the healing process. It’s just a matter of Time.
No one can escape Time, but it’s having to work overtime to catch Tom Brady.
At the age of 40, he is older than eight of the coaches on his team. Teammate Brandin Cooks was 7 when Brady began his NFL career. Somehow he has kept Time at bay far longer than most. On Sunday, Brady will play against the Jacksonville Jaguars (average age: 25) for the chance to qualify for his seventh Super Bowl.
Brady is wrapping up his 18th season after leading the league in passing yards with the fourth highest total of his career. He threw for 4,577 yards, 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions and is one of the frontrunners for the league MVP award.
Brady broke all the passing records for 40-year-olds, but that’s like winning a beauty pageant in Greenland — there isn’t much competition.
Vinny Testaverde was the Cowboys’ starting quarterback in 2004 at the age of 41, throwing for 3,532 yards, 17 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He started six games for the Panthers at age 44. Steve DeBerg was five years into retirement when he returned to the game. At 44 years and 279 days, he became the oldest quarterback ever to start a game in the NFL in 1998 — and looked every year of it. Warren Moon played until he was 44, but he stopped playing well after age 39. Doug Flutie started one game at 42 and was a backup at 43, but it was not a pretty sight.
Brett Favre actually produced the greatest season ever by a 40-year-old, passing for 4,202, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions (his pass efficiency rating was 107.2, five points higher than Brady’s). A year later he had the worst season of his career and retired.
It can happen that quickly, without warning. At 37, Peyton Manning set NFL single-season passing records; two years later his arm was gone.
Brady says he’s far from the end. "I always said my mid-40s," Brady told ESPN, "and naturally that means around 45. If I get there and I still feel like I do today, I don't see why I wouldn't want to continue."
The average age among NFL players is 26. There are only about seven players per 53-man roster who are over 30. For some positions, NFL careers are especially short.
Research indicates that running backs reach their peak performance at 27 and thereafter begin a steep decline in performance. ESPN’s Kevin Siefert noted, “Keep in mind that age 27 is the essential point where most players, under the current collective bargaining agreement, become free agents for the first time. At their first opportunity for a payday, the league already views them to be beyond their prime.”
In other words, the NFL is betting on Time.
The prime years vary from sport to sport, but it’s an aberration when an athlete plays well in any sport in their fourth decade. NBA players begin their decline after the age of 30. Just look at the advanced stats for LeBron James (especially win shares).
No one wants to remember Michael Jordan at the end of his career with the Wizards, at the ages of 38 and 39. Or Kareem-Abdul Jabbar moving sloth-like on the court.
Since the open era in pro tennis began in 1968, only 10 women over the age of 30 have won a Grand Slam event and six of those were produced by Serena Williams, the oldest champion at 34. Likewise, only 10 men over the age of 30 have won a Slam tournament, the oldest being Ken Rosewall at 37.
Roger Federer won 16 of his record 19 Grand Slams between the ages of 21 and 28 — and 10 of them from ages 24-27. He has won only three of them since 2011, when he turned 29 — including two last year at the age of 35.
The average age for athletes in the Rio Olympics was 25.2 for women, 26.2 for men.
Even golfers, whose game is based more on skill and finesse than speed and power, is on the clock. The Golf Channel studied the winners of golf’s slam events from 1960 to 2014 and determined that the average and median age for major champions is 32. Players 35 and younger have won more than 75 percent of all the majors; less than 10 percent (20 of 216) were won by players 40 and over.
In 2015, Boston Globe reporters Alex Speier and Luke Knox did extensive research on Major League Baseball players and reported that the prime years are from 25-30, noting, “ … after turning 30, players experience a clear and steady decline in the likelihood that they’ll be productive offensive contributors …”3 comments on this story
By any measure, Brady is pushing the envelope, perhaps aided by his dedication and style of play. He has never relied on athleticism — who can forget the video of his 40-yard dash at the combine? — which is the first thing that Time attacks. He also is fanatical in his approach to training and diet, which is based on vegetables, lean protein and the avoidance of alcohol, caffeine and sugar.
Whatever the reason, Brady has so far pushed back against Time. Time waits for no one, the Rolling Stones sang, and yet Time waits on Tom Brady.