By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
In sports, we are obsessed with what comes next.
That’s why mock drafts are as popular as drafts, why there is such a thing as a preseason All-American, why you might read a “way-too-early” power rankings for the next year before the current season is even over and why an outlet once (jokingly) guessed the outcome of the next 25 Super Bowls.
Given our adoration of athletic crystal ball-gazing, imagine this situation, and cast your mind to how we’d react to it.
There’s a hopeful young quarterback in his first season with a new team. He plays smart in a good system, backed by a great defense, and surprises everyone by out-dueling the league MVP and making it to the Super Bowl, in which he’ll face big odds against the reigning champs.
If it were the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen or the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert in this position, sure, we’d be talking about his chances of winning this year’s championship, but we’d be spending more time talking about … what’s next? We’d be debating how good he is going to become, discussing his potential status as one of the figureheads of the league, prognosticating how the following few years might unfold.
So why aren’t we doing that for Tom Brady?
The average shelf life of an NFL player is 3.3 years, which means that in essence, as he gears up for arguably the most testing Super Bowl he has played, Brady has had six careers.
Knowing what we know about him, is it such an absurd notion that he’d have one more?
“I would definitely consider that,” Brady, 43, said earlier this week, ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ clash with the Kansas City Chiefs, when asked about prolonging his career past 45. “It’s a physical sport. You never know when that moment is.”
Brady puts us in a weird spot because for the past few years, he has confounded everything we thought we knew about quarterbacks at that stage of their careers, and now he’s in uncharted waters, so we’ve got nothing to go off.
Except this: Assuming, as we now safely can, that Brady’s obsessive commitment to a hard-core health regimen means he feels as physically strong as, say, your average 34-year-old QB, why would we think he couldn’t produce something similar to what he did this season once the 2021 campaign rolls around?
And if he can match figures such as 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns, combined with the gravitas and calm he brings, and if he decides he wants to carry on, why wouldn’t the Bucs rush to give him a new deal once his current two-year, $50 million contract expires?
The realities of life mean that every player is always getting gradually closer to the end of his career, yet Brady is extending both his expiration date and the perception of when it is likely. In the battle of Tom vs. Time, Tom is winning, handily.
If he truly does have his heart set on playing into the 2022 season and beyond, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him agree to a deal that is even more team-friendly. These days, $25 million for a playoff-tested QB is the bargain of all bargains.
When QBs get past a certain point, their hunger and desire begin to be questioned, sometimes unfairly. There’s no use in doubting those things with Brady, for he has proved them just by still being here.
“I think it’s a combustible mix of greatness and underdog, and you never see those things hit together,” FS1’s Kevin Wildes said on “First Things First.” “The fact he has gotten older and older and older and he’s at the same time the best ever and an underdog, it’s a cycle of motivation that will keep him going to 45 and beyond.”
Brady sticking around in Tampa a while longer could become a problem for the rest of the NFC. It is not outrageous to think that with an additional (and less disrupted) preseason, the Bucs’ offense could click even better, and Brady’s cohesion with big targets Mike Evans and Chris Godwin would improve further.
Brady is the finest QB thinker there has ever been, and head coach Bruce Arians is learning to put certain pieces around him with careful timing. It’s not always what you’d expect, such as when Scotty Miller exploded toward the end zone like an Olympic sprinter for that crucial pre-halftime touchdown against the Green Bay Packers.
If the Tampa Bay defense remains this good, Brady will be asked to do no more than what he’s capable of, which is the perfect situation for him. That’s the heart of this exercise in projection. For as long as he is able to play within his limits, on a team that knows how to make the most of what he has, there’s no reason for Brady to stop unless he wants to.
Every QB’s time runs out eventually, but once you take away the physical part of it — remember, Brady has been almost injury-free – it changes the rules drastically.
“This is the modern athlete, [benefitting from] modern science, technology,” former All-Pro Brandon Marshall said. “The game is different. If we were talking about a running back, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Brady has been doing this so long that the sacrifices don’t feel like sacrifices anymore.
Living healthy, getting tons of sleep, drinking lots of water, having a personal, plant-based chef and adhering to a diet most people couldn’t fathom? Brady actually likes all that, and it won’t look markedly different when he’s done.
When he’s done.
Common wisdom said he’d be done already. Brady, you might have noticed, doesn’t care much for common wisdom.
He’s thinking, even now, about what’s next.
Get more from National Football League Add to your favorites to get information about games, news and more.