What is the best way to explain what Tom Brady means to football? How about this: he gives us all a reason to believe in the Fountain of Youth.

At thirty-nine years old, he is still an absurdly good quarterback by any measure you could think of, and his Patriots are still the dragon guarding the crossing to Super Bowl contention in the AFC. Brady has always fully inhabited the persona of the All-American golden boy, the homecoming king who stayed handsome and popular forever; when we picture a day in the life of Tom Brady, we think of him relaxing in the back of a limousine, or sitting on a veranda and sniffing a glass of rich wine, or rolling out of bed with his hair already somehow perfect.

He is the sort of person whose hair ripples gently in the breeze even when he is indoors. Oscar Wilde wrote about “women of the very highest birth who have, of their free choice, remained thirty-five for years”. That is the sense that I get when I watch Brady play—he found his ideal state of being and simply chose to stay that way forever.

As I write this, Brady is sitting on the cusp of his 200th win as a starting quarterback (regular season & playoffs), tied with Peyton Manning for the all-time record—a record he will no doubt be the sole owner of before long. And while he is still every bit the defensive coordinator-terrorizing Superman he has always been, every time I have watched him play this season it feels as though something is off. He has retained his air of unruffled, collared-shirt-and-cardigan cool, but that image seems much more fragile now. Something is missing. Specifically, Peyton Manning is missing.

For the generation of football fans who grew up around the same time I did, Manning and Brady have defined pretty much our whole football watching experience. In the fifteen years since Brady started his first NFL game (against Manning’s Colts, no less), they have combined to appear in ten Super Bowls and fifteen AFC Championships (four against each other). They have rewritten the record books for quarterbacks, and in the process fundamentally changed our idea of what an NFL offense should be.

At the turn of the century, the hurry-up offense was a novelty, most teams still used a fullback regularly, and the idea of running an offense primarily out of the shotgun was almost unheard of. There are a lot of factors that have contributed to the NFL’s passing-centric evolution in the past decade, but Brady and Manning were always at the forefront, showcasing the explosive power of an aggressive spread offense in the right hands. Manning and Brady altered the evolutionary path of professional football…and somehow, that wasn’t even the biggest reason that their rivalry was the dominant storyline of an entire era.

The reason that every Manning-Brady game was such great theater, the reason that their trajectories became so closely intertwined that you can’t assess the greatness of one without bringing up the other, is that they were perfect foils for each other in every aesthetic sense. Brady’s supermodel-courting strut made the starkest contrast imaginable to Manning’s WASP-dad goofiness.

Via Nationwide
Via Nationwide

While Brady is checking out his new suit in the mirror and slicking back an eyebrow with one finger, Manning is hunched over the dining room table diligently checking his tax forms for errors (and probably humming the Nationwide theme song). Brady plays football with a graceful sense of assurance, while Manning played like an OCD cyborg—I always imagined that Peyton saw each play like a football Robocop, with every hard count, high-low read and zone blitz that he had ever seen in his life stored in a database that he could summon before his eyes at will. They were two sides of a coin, two counterweights designed specifically to balance each other out. And now one of them is gone, and the other has been stripped of the context in which he always existed.

You can find plenty of fans (particularly here in Denver) who find Brady’s persona incredibly grating, but up until now we’ve never been very skeptical of it. He has spent fifteen years embodying a patently unrealistic ideal, but it was easy to believe in because it fit so perfectly into the narrative between him and Manning. But now, as he is on the verge of eclipsing one of his archrival’s greatest accomplishments, it feels like the veil has pulled back a little and we can see that being Tom Brady is hard.

We can picture him taking notes in meetings and meticulously breaking down game film while worrying the corner of his mouth with the end of a mechanical pencil, which is the role that Manning has always filled in our collective imagination. For the first time, we can look at Tom Brady and see a man doing a job.

That’s certainly not an insult—his perpetual brilliance on the field looks even more impressive when you consider the amount of work he has to put in to sustain it. But it’s a weird thing to say about a guy whose signature trait is his effortless cool. It won’t affect his spot in the football pantheon, but it’s allowing us to gain a new perspective on a player we thought we already knew everything about.

It’s hard to say where Brady can still go from here. Right now he looks like he could continue to play at this level for another half-decade, but there is essentially no precedent for a quarterback maintaining success into his forties. Remember that Manning was still a superstar as recently as the middle of 2014…and just a year and a half later, he was a lumbering cadaver getting dragged to a championship on the back of a once-in-a-lifetime defense.

Any day now, Brady might wake up and feel the toll of fifteen years of accumulated hits weighing down on him. Any day now, the myth of Brady that we have grown comfortable with will be finally forced under the microscope, and we will remember that he is, after all, mortal.  

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