By Andrew Both
Feb 4 (Reuters) - Tom Brady has a good chance of becoming the oldest starting quarterback ever to play in the National Football League, according to a consensus reached by sports science experts interviewed by Reuters.
They say that only a serious injury, or lack of motivation, will likely stand in the way of the New England stalwart, who at 39 goes for a fifth Super Bowl championship when he leads the Patriots into battle against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Brady has given no hint that he plans to retire any time soon, but he will need to play six more seasons to eclipse Steve DeBerg, who was nearly 45 when he made a start as quarterback for the Falcons in 1998.
Brady, in his 17th season and the oldest active quarterback in the league, shows no sign of slowing down or skill diminution. Father Time will eventually catch up with him, as it does with everyone, but that moment seems to be some distance away.
Experts believe Brady's on-field situational awareness, allied to a formidable offensive line and a few touches of good fortune, have enabled him to avoid the injuries that have hampered many other quarterbacks.
Brady's only serious career injury was torn knee ligaments that forced him to miss most of the 2008 season.
"Unless he gets a major injury, (he can continue playing) a lot of years," Mike Hahn, director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic at the University of Oregon, told Reuters. "How many is a lot: five-to-seven?
"Brady has done well to ride the peak performance stage most athletes have from their late 20s to early-mid 30s. His (throwing) form is classic and he's constantly aware of where he's at and playing 100 percent within his comfort zone.
"It's no coincidence he hasn't been injured more and you've got to credit the Patriots for the way they've put together a team around him."
Exercise scientist Matthew Reicher believes Brady's longevity may end up being a "psychological question" rather than a physical one.
He could decide to retire once he feels his motivation waning, Reicher says, even if he is still good enough to remain as a starting quarterback.
"He's human. At some point eventually he's going to wake up one day and not feel the same," Reicher, the head athletic trainer at the NY Sports Science Lab on Staten Island, New York, told Reuters.
"Strength in the arm is the first thing that will slow down."
Reicher's colleague, biomechanist Michael Greene, cited an ESPN analysis that examined Brady's near-perfect throwing mechanics and concluded that he releases the ball at 61 miles-per-hour (98 kilometers-per-hour), significantly faster than most other quarterbacks, and can hit a target the size of a dinner plate some 20 yards (18 meters) away.
Greene also has a theory that it perhaps was a blessing in disguise for Brady to be taken as a lowly 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.
"Because he started out under-rated, he had a chance to develop without having the pressure to succeed," said Greene.
The experts also emphasized the importance of injury avoidance not just in the longevity of a career, but also the quality, citing as an example five-times NFL most valuable player Peyton Manning. Despite having major neck surgery, Manning played until 39, but his performance declined at the end, especially his throwing strength.
"A huge series of compensations arise after injury," said Hahn of the Bowerman Clinic.
So for all the speculation of Brady playing until he is 45, in the end it might come down simply to whether he can avoid that one bad career-ending hit.
"Playing in the NFL is a ticking time bomb with your body. At some point, you are going to take a hit," said University of Oregon senior PhD student Jake Hinkel-Lipsker.
Added Greene: "The problem is that NFL players are getting bigger, stronger, faster. No matter how diligent you are, there is no way to prepare for violent collisions."
Perhaps not, but Brady so far has done a pretty good job in avoiding them. (Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)