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Timeless Tom Brady and His Unique Place Among Sports’ All-Time Greats

By: Ethan D. Cooperson

This just in: Tom Brady is old.

When Brady takes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first snap in Super Bowl 55, the 43-year-old quarterback will set – for the third time in four years – a new high-water mark for the oldest player to start a Super Bowl at any position.

In fact, TB12 will have started the NFL’s ultimate game three times after turning 40; Jerry Rice (SB 37) has the only other start in Super Bowl history by a player who had reached his 40th birthday.

Highlighted by six Super Bowl victories in nine appearances (soon to be 10), Brady’s legacy as the NFL’s greatest winner is hardly in doubt. The question ‘how much can one player win?’ has been superseded, at least for the moment, by this one: How old can a quarterback be, and still win championships?

QBs with multiple Super Bowl starts (Wins)

9 – Tom Brady (6)

5 – John Elway (2)

4 – Terry Bradshaw (4), Joe Montana (4), Peyton Manning (2), Roger Staubach (2), Jim Kelly (0)

3 – Troy Aikman (3), Bob Griese (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Kurt Warner (1), Fran Tarkenton (0)

2 – Eli Manning (2), Jim Plunkett (2), Bart Starr (2), Len Dawson (1), Brett Favre (1), Joe Thiesmann (1), Russell Wilson (1), Craig Morton (0)

The distribution of Brady’s Super Bowl victories over his career is curious. He led the New England Patriots to six Lombardi Trophies in his two decades in Foxborough – despite going through a nine-year period where he didn’t win any.

And that included what would be considered, at least for most quarterbacks, the prime of his career. Here’s the breakdown:

For context on Brady’s age at the time of his last three titles, we looked at some of the all-time winners and signature superstars in the other team sports in North America.

Bill Russell was the brightest star on the NBA’s longest-running dynasty, the Hall of Famer-laden Boston Celtics teams that captured 11 championships in 13 years between 1957 and 1969. Although baseball isn’t dominated by individual players as much the other sports, Derek Jeter was the linchpin of five World Series-winning New York Yankees teams, was an All-Star 14 times and ranks sixth in the game’s history with 3,465 hits.

The NBA’s Michael Jordan and NHL’s Wayne Gretzky are their sport’s all-time leaders in points per game, with a combined 14 MVP Awards filling their trophy cases.

The championship scoreboard for Russell, Gretzky, Jordan and Jeter looks like this:

It’s a total of 26 titles won by the illustrious quartet, but perhaps the second line is most striking: none of them celebrated a championship after turning 36.

Russell turned 35 in February of his final season, 1968-69, during which he finished third in the league in rebounding at 19.3 per game while serving as Boston’s player-coach. His career synchronized exactly with the Celtics’ run: 11 titles in 13 years beginning in 1956-57.

Michael Jordan won six championships with the Chicago Bulls. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker)

Like Russell, Jordan retired at age 35 within months of winning his last championship. It was the second of MJ’s three retirements, and it came following a season in which he took home both league MVP honors and the NBA Finals MVP. Jordan might have left some championships on the table, but the Chicago Bulls’ internal politics and uncertain future helped drive him from the game.

After a two-year hiatus, he returned as a player-owner with the Washington Wizards and averaged better than 20 points in two seasons – but those were losing teams in Washington that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Jeter didn’t retire at age 35 – but his play dropped off significantly. After a 2009 Series-winning campaign in which he ranked fourth in MLB with a .334 batting average and second in hits with 212, Jeter played five more seasons, never again posting an OPS as high as .800. The Yankees would reach the ALCS twice in Jeter’s last five seasons, losing in 2010 to Texas and 2012 to Detroit.

Gretzky is the outlier of the group, as his last Stanley Cup came well before he turned 30. Gretzky was an established star in the NHL well before his 20th birthday – in fact, he turned 19 midway through a rookie season that saw him earn the first of his nine Hart Trophies as league MVP. By the time Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers parted ways in the summer of 1988 with his trade to the Los Angeles Kings, he was 27 and had won four Stanley Cups. He would not win again.

Although he led the NHL in points three times in his first six seasons with the Kings and compiled an NHL-high 1,188 points in his 11 years after leaving the Oilers, Gretzky managed just one more trip to a Cup Final, losing with LA to Montreal in 1993.

So back to Brady. The Bucs’ QB has shown us that the championship life of a superstar doesn’t have to stop at age 35. And if Tampa Bay can get by Kansas City on Sunday, Brady’s Super Bowl victories after 35 will match the highest total of Super Bowl wins by any other quarterback – four each by Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.

Patrick Mahomes celebrates during the second half of Super Bowl 54. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Standing in the way of that milestone is a QB on the opposite end of the age scale, 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes. Having recently crossed the threshold of 1,500 career pass attempts, Mahomes is the all-time leader in passer rating and touchdown-interception ratio. For good measure, he’s the postseason leader in both categories too!

While Brady will set new a mark for the oldest player in a Super Bowl, Mahomes is set to become the youngest quarterback to make two starts in the league’s ultimate game. Mahomes won’t turn 26 until the first month of next season, and he’s already won a league MVP and last season’s Super Bowl MVP.

In contrast, Brady made his second Super Bowl start and earned his second championship at age 26; the first of his three MVP awards didn’t come until his 30-year-old season. And here’s one more number that illustrates the difference between TB12 and Mahomes: The all-time leader in touchdown passes, Brady threw a total of 46 regular-season TD passes before his 26th birthday. Mahomes threw 50 in one season at age 23 and already has 114 – with perhaps one more regular-season game at age 25 (he turns 26 on September 17).

No matter the outcome on Sunday, the Mahomes-Brady comparisons are likely to continue throughout the younger quarterback’s career and beyond. Should red confetti litter the field at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday night, with the Chiefs capturing the Lombardi Trophy, it won’t be long before we start to wonder if, one year from now, Mahomes will do something that no QB – not even Brady – has ever done: win three straight Super Bowls.

 

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