New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s performance during the 2007 regular season was arguably the finest ever completed by a professional quarterback. Not only did he set a NFL record with 50 touchdown passes, not only did he command the highest scoring offense (36.8 points per game) in NFL history, but he was the centerpiece of the only team ever to finish the regular season with a 16-0 record.
It’s hard to imagine Brady outdoing himself, but there’s a case to be made that Brady’s 2016 was actually the greatest single season the future of Hall of Fame member ever enjoyed.
Of course, Brady’s overall statistics in 2016 don’t compare to that 2007 season. In fact, a superficial glance at the numbers suggests Brady had a near subpar year — subpar for Tom Brady. He finishes with less than 3,900 yards passing for the first time since tearing an ACL in 2008 and failed to top 30 touchdowns for the first time since 2013.
But comparing his 2016 totals to any other year is comparing apples to oranges, simply because Brady missed the first four games of the season due to his Deflategate suspension.
That reduction of playing time cuts both ways: Arguably the most incredible statistic Brady posted in 2016 was his number of interceptions. He only threw 2, the lowest number of his entire career, but missing four games tempers the amazement that total inspires.
No, to truly appreciate Brady’s 2016 campaign, individual statistics have to be thrown out the window.
First, consider his age. Brady turned 39 prior to the start of the season. Should he claim his third MVP award he will be older than any previous winner. Even if he doesn’t edge out Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers or whomever else, he’s certainly having the greatest year ever by a player who began the season at age 39.
Last season, when Peyton Manning turned 39, he fell apart. Brett Favre’s streak of starts and Pro Bowl play came to an end in 2010 when he turned 39. And George Blanda’s famous 1970 season (at the age of 43) was really only five games long. The performance by Jerry Rice (92 catches, 1,211 yards) in 2002, at the age of 40, probably ranks a close second behind Brady’s 2016 season.
To put together even a solid season, let alone a potential MVP season, at that age, with his level of wear-and-tear, is far more impressive than a 30- or 33-year-old, which is the age Brady was when he won his two previous MVP awards.
Still, being older doesn’t necessarily make one season look better than another. Consistently playing near-flawless football without a full complement of starters does, however.
Since 2011, tight end Rob Gronkowski has become Brady’s greatest weapon in the passing game. But at no point this season was the three-time All Pro selection healthy, and the two only played five full games together this season before Gronkowski was sent to the IR with a gruesome back injury. Couple Gronkowski’s injury with a foot that nagged wide receiver Julian Edelman much of the season and cost him ample practice time, and Brady had to quickly utilize a handful of new pieces once he returned from suspension.
Prior to his first start, in Week 4, Brady had never thrown passes to Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Martellus Bennett. Those three combined for 12 of Brady’s 28 touchdown passes in 2016. Sure, Brady had never played with Randy Moss or Wes Welker prior to the 2007 season, but that season Brady didn’t have to adjust midseason due to injuries the way he has this season.
Yet, the most striking line on Brady’s 2016 résumé is the list of defenses he has toppled throughout the season. Baltimore, Denver, Buffalo and Seattle will each finish the season in the top-10 against the pass and three of those teams (Baltimore, Seattle and Denver) will finish in the top-10 in scoring. Against those four teams, Brady combined to throw 7 touchdowns and average more than 300 yards-per-game. It’s also worth noting that, statistically, the worst pass defense Brady faced all season was Cleveland’s and even the Browns didn’t finish in the bottom-10 (12th worst) against the pass.
Brady’s 2007 regular season, Marino’s record-setting 1984 (5,084 passing yards, 48 touchdowns) or the year Manning (5,477 passing yard, 55 touchdowns) had in 2013, will always be looked upon with more awe than the one Brady completed Sunday afternoon in Miami. Averaging more than 300 yards and at least 3 touchdown passes per game for a full 16 games has that kind of effect. But each of those quarterbacks ultimately failed to turn those MVP performances into a championship. Marino, Manning and Brady all lost the Super Bowl at the close of those seasons. The 2016 edition of Brady still has a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. And if he does that, it’s hard not to call it the greatest start-to-finish season of his illustrious career, and maybe of all time.