Last January, while the Dolphins were conducting a coaching search and the Patriots were in the playoffs and headed to another Super Bowl, a since-departed Miami defensive player was talking about both teams when the subject turned to Tom Brady.
“Yeah, you guys in the media love him, you make a big deal about him all the time,” the veteran player began, “but me, I hate him.
“I hate that he complains to the refs, and they protect him. I hate how he yells at his own guys, but everyone thinks he’s a great teammate. I hate that he’s mentioned among the all-time greats because part of that came against us. I hate that he’s married to a supermodel.
“I just hate that guy.”
And that’s about the time I asked, “So you’d never want him on your team?”
“Take him in a heartbeat,” he answered quickly. “At least we wouldn’t have to play him twice a year.”
The New England Patriots quarterback has been around a long time now. This is his 13th season haunting AFC East teams — including the Dolphins — with arguably the best quarterback play in the division since Peyton Manning and the Colts departed.
Just as Dan Marino and then Jim Kelly dominated the division, Brady and the Patriots have owned this swath of the NFL with few rivals to match their consistency.
The Patriots have won the division 10 of the 11 years that Brady has been the starter. They’ve been among the NFL’s top-10 scoring teams nine consecutive years.
But that’s not the worst news for the folks in Miami, New York and Buffalo.
The bad news is Brady isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And he isn’t showing signs of decline.
“I feel great,” said Brady, now 35. “I hope I can play as long as I can. I’m sure there comes a time for everybody, but that’s not necessarily in my short-term future. I’m going to keep playing as long as the Patriots will have me.”
Judging by recent success, including this playoff run, the Patriots will have Brady for as long as he can take a snap from center.
Brady, you see, is not like past elite quarterbacks that started to fade in their mid-30s or never even made it that far. Brady actually seems to be going the other direction.
His three best consecutive seasons?
The past three.
He has thrown 109 touchdown passes since 2010. The Dolphins scored 87 touchdowns in the air and on the ground, as the song goes, the past three seasons. That’s a combined total for the entire team.
Brady threw 34 touchdown passes this season but only eight interceptions, which is the second-lowest number in his career. He also fumbled only twice, which is the lowest total of his career. By the way, he lost only one of those two fumbles despite a career-high 637 pass attempts.
“It is amazing seeing how he runs our offense,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “Whether it is no-huddle or he is getting guys in the huddle, the way he changes the pace of the game. He commands the game like no other, and I love watching him from the sideline, obviously on those long drives so we can get our wind back up, but it is exciting seeing him go out there and put up a lot of points.”
The problem for division rivals as Brady on Sunday plays for the chance to take New England to a second consecutive Super Bowl and the sixth during his, ahem, reign, is that there seems to be no relief in sight.
Brady hasn’t had any significant injuries outside a knee reconstruction that forced him to miss the 2008 season. So he’s not exactly creaking around like his childhood idol, Joe Montana, or Marino did at the end of their careers.
And the signs of receding skills that befell other legends are nowhere to be seen on him yet.
Think about it:
By the time Johnny Unitas was 35 years old, he was effectively done as a starting quarterback. He threw two touchdowns and four interceptions at 35, and while he played five more years, he never had more touchdowns than interceptions again.
Kelly had a mediocre season (22 TDs, 13 INTs) at 35 and then fell off the table the next year and retired.
Montana couldn’t even play at age 35 or 36 but enjoyed mixed success his final two years when he played for Kansas City. Despite helping the Chiefs, Montana wasn’t Joe Cool anymore.
Dan Fouts retired at 36, Donovan McNabb retired at 35 and Troy Aikman only made it to 34. All were shadows of their former selves when they walked away from the game.
Brady is not only playing well but is still enjoying the process of doing the work (practice, studying) so that he can play better. In other words, he has avoided one of the obstacles that befell Marino later in his career.
“He is still that guy that comes early and leaves late,” Mayo said.
“Sometimes I look at him in practice and I say, ‘Man, you have been doing this for so long and you are still worried about your footwork,’ ” teammate Vince Wilfork said. “But it is just little things, and he is always going that extra mile to make sure he is in the best shape and in the best situation and putting his teammates in the best situation that can give us a chance to win.”
If a parallel can be drawn, the arc of Brady’s career is starting to resemble that of Brett Favre.
Favre, like Brady, was prolific in his prime. Then he threw 152 touchdown passes from age 35 to the end of his career at 41. But that number might only be a modest goal for Brady because 21 touchdowns per season seems like a slow pace for him.
And, unlike Favre, Brady doesn’t spend weeks after every season agonizing whether to keep playing or not.
“I really love playing football, so I think a lot of my time and energy is spent focused on trying to help this team win and trying to be a good teammate and a good leader,” he said. “Like I said last week, I take those things very seriously. I try not to buy into what people say or think.
“I just live my life and certainly enjoy being the quarterback for this team. There’s nothing more fun than running out onto the field in front of 70,000 people cheering for us.”
The Dolphins, Bills and Jets must love hearing that.