‘He is going to fall off a cliff’: How Tom Brady continues to defy an infamous ESPN prediction

"It pretty much started with the 'On to Cincinnati' game in 2014 through now, probably one of the best stretches of quarterback play in history."

Tom Brady
Tom Brady on the field before the Patriots' first preseason game in 2019. –AP Photo/Paul Sancya

“Tom Brady’s just about done,” said ESPN pundit Max Kellerman on morning show “First Take” in July 2016. “It could be his next game, it could be a year from now, but he is going to fall off a cliff. Tom Brady is going to be a bum in short order.”

While it’s easy for Patriots fans to forget Kellerman’s equivocations on timing — acknowledging that his prediction might not come true for an entire year — the declaration of an approaching “cliff” was stark.

Brady was less than a month away from his 39th birthday at that point, and for all of Kellerman’s bluster, history appeared to be on his side. Quarterbacks have traditionally experienced declines in their mid-to-late 30s.

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Peyton Manning, Brady’s longtime rival, had only just retired earlier in 2016. Though he went out a champion, Manning had been dramatically less effective in his final season, posting his worst stats in his career by far.

Yet Brady responded with a year that was almost impossible to believe. He not only led the Patriots to a miraculous comeback in Super Bowl LI, but compiled an astounding touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 28:2.

“In 2016, [Brady] probably had his best season, even compared to his two MVP seasons in 2007 or 2010,” Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said in an interview. “In 2016, he just didn’t miss throws. He was incredibly accurate down the field, accurate everywhere.”

The analysis from Pro Football Focus is detailed, giving every player a grade on every play. So when Palazzolo explained that Brady “just didn’t miss throws,” it’s based on a literal examination of every single throw the Patriots quarterback made in a game.

Kellerman’s take looked no more prescient in 2017 or 2018 than it did in 2016. Since uttering those words on ESPN, Kellerman has had to watch three consecutive Super Bowls in which none other than Brady and the Patriots took the field to extend their historic dynasty.

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It’s even gotten to the point where Brady has invoked Kellerman’s infamous declaration: After an offseason workout earlier in 2019, Brady posted a picture of a radar gun showing his throwing velocity with the caption, “He’s going to fall off a cliff.”

As he approaches his 20th season in the NFL, Brady, now 42, plows ahead with the confidence of a quarterback who has repeatedly bested his critics. And he still has years to go, at least according to his own plan.

“I set a goal that I want to play to my mid-40s,” Brady said in a WEEI interview before Super Bowl LIII. Brady maintains that he wants to keep playing because, given his experience level, he “has all the answers to the test now.”

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But what does decline even look like for a quarterback of his caliber?

In a recent FiveThirtyEight article, Neil Paine concluded that the end for Brady and 39-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees “could come gently — but more likely, it will come without warning.”

In other words, history suggests Kellerman’s “cliff” is still in play, even if his original timing is considerably off. That said, as Paine and others have illustrated, Brady and Brees have effectively broken the mold for aging quarterbacks.

“A generation of quarterbacks is performing at such a high level into their late 30s and, in some cases, early 40s, that they’re challenging our notions about longevity and team-building,” wrote Kevin Clark of The Ringer in January as Brady made another Super Bowl run. “We cannot say they are better than previous generations at their ages, because no comparison exists.”

Hall of Famer Warren Moon, a former NFL quarterback who played into his 40s, theorized how decline might look for Brady.

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“I don’t think you fall off a cliff, but it is gradual, and once that gradual [decline] starts, there’s no turning back from it,” Moon explained. “It’s not like you’re going to recapture what you had before.”

Still, it’s interesting to note that Brady actually has recaptured a drop in performance before. In 2014, at the age of 37, Brady toppled the conventional wisdom by reversing what appeared to be a downward trajectory.

“So 2013-2014 up to that Kansas City game, that was probably the worst stretch of his career since [2001-2002],” Palazzolo noted. “But then he completely reversed it. It pretty much started with the ‘On to Cincinnati‘ game in 2014 through now, probably one of the best stretches of quarterback play in history. It did look bleak for a little while, but he’s absolutely turned that around.”

Despite winning an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl last season, Brady’s performance was slightly below 2015-2017.

“Last year he took a step back a little bit,” said Palazzolo, adding that Brady wasn’t quite as good at finding second or third reads, and that he “made a few more bad decisions throwing into coverage.”

“But he was still a top-five quarterback for us,” Palazzolo added. “To me, the step back that he took was more to a 2014 Tom Brady, which was again a step below that 2015-2017 mark.”

Regardless of how many hurdles Brady continues to clear beyond the age of 40, the prognostications of his decline will continue. Kellerman, despite his earlier errors, has continued to lead the charge.

A more realistic scenario might be Palazzolo’s take.

“It’s tough to predict cliff-like decline, because you might see a little bit of decline here and there, like we did last year, but it’s not like he declined to incapable play,” Palazzolo explained. “He declined to a still Super Bowl-level quarterback like he was in 2014.”

For Patriots fans, declining toward another Super Bowl probably sounds just fine.