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For Brady, age isn't the enemy

Happy 37th birthday, Tom Brady! Your gift from your ballclub is ... no, not Andre Johnson. It's a rookie quarterback it hopes to groom to replace you someday. You don't mind, right?

It doesn't appear to have irked Brady in the slightest. His next contract expires after the 2017 season, when he will be 40 years old, but he plans to play beyond that, preferably for the New England Patriots. The team might be charting its course for life after the franchise QB, but Brady's aim is to remain entrenched and irreplaceable.

He's aware of the football narrative. He knows his childhood idol Joe Montana didn't finish his career in San Francisco, nor did Brett Favre retire in a Green Bay uniform. Five years ago, it would have been unfathomable to imagine Peyton Manning in anything but a Colts jersey, but now he throws those tight spirals for the Denver Broncos.

Brady has become a topic of debate throughout the league as the analytic experts draw their conclusions on whether his decrease in production is the result of a lack of an offensive arsenal or diminished skills.

Asked Thursday if he is past the need to prove people wrong, Brady answered candidly, "I don't think you are ever past that."

The presence of Jimmy Garoppolo only heightens the conversation. It is, at the very least, an acknowledgement by the team that it's time to look down the road.

Let's be clear. No one -- not Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick or Rob Gronkowski (and certainly not Gisele) -- wants or expects Garoppolo to play a single minute this season. If he does, something has gone horribly wrong. Not to suggest Garoppolo will be the next Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck.

Yet it was significant that Belichick used a second-round pick to draft a quarterback. The team likes Garoppolo's mental tenacity and quick release, so it plans to develop and instruct him to learn from the master.

Meanwhile, Brady trades playful barbs with his pal Tedy Bruschi (who said Brady's current contract will be his last) and fields questions about "Madden" nudging Seahawks upstart quarterback Russell Wilson ahead of him in its ratings.

Drew Brees turned heads earlier this week by announcing he believes he can play until he's 45 then joking he was "randomly drug tested" twice after his remarks.

When Favre turned 40 with the Minnesota Vikings, he led the team to a 12-4 record and submitted one of the best statistical seasons of his career: 33 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and a 68.4 percent completion rate.

Brady believes he can generate similar success. He's never relied on superior athleticism, so the natural aging process will not affect him in the same manner as it does more mobile quarterbacks. Plus, as the NFL continues to conjure up more layers of protection for its quarterbacks, the shelf life for football's glamour position will increase. Then there's Brady's all-consuming need to orchestrate the absolutely perfect play.

So is it feasible that Tom Brady can play well into his 40s?

"If his body holds up, Tommy can play as long as he wants," said former Patriots general manager (and current Atlanta Falcons assistant GM) Scott Pioli, who was in the war room the day New England drafted Brady in the sixth round. "The primary reason is because he's taken care of his body, he's done all the work required, and most importantly, he hasn't lost his focus.

"He's still committed."

The stories of Brady's competitiveness are bountiful. Former tight end Christian Fauria's favorite is the day they both showed up for a charity basketball game. Brady, according to Fauria, was decked out in his "Dan Cortese headband" and came "bounding onto the court like a lunatic."

"We're playing against these overweight cops, kids, teachers and grandmas," Fauria said. "It was supposed to be easy.

"So we're losing, and Tom calls a timeout and starts yelling at me, 'Fauria, guard somebody!' I've got a 12-year-old kid on me. I'm saying, 'Hey, Tom, calm down,' but he's shooting 3-pointers and diving for loose balls, and of course we come back to win.

"They had to get him out of there because he was just getting mobbed by everyone."

Pioli recalls working late one night in March 2001 on some draft prep at the old Foxboro Stadium. He was exiting the parking lot when he noticed the light of the practice bubble was on. Pioli pulled next to Brady's modest, yellow jeep, parked near the entrance, and walked in to find the backup quarterback with elastic tubing wrapped around each ankle and doing footwork drills as he threw footballs into round holes in the nets.

"I stood and watched him go through a few reps before he realized I was there," Pioli said. "I said, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?' He smiled and jogged over and said, 'I'm just not sure I got enough done this week.'

"Think about that. This was pre-Brady superstar days. He was a young guy. It was the offseason, in March, when no one was around -- brutally handsome kid who could have had a social life but instead was living in a condo with his two sisters and working in the bubble on a Friday night to get better."

Before Pioli left, Brady asked him, "You won't tell anyone about this, will you?"

Pioli assured him he wouldn't.

"I think he was a little embarrassed someone discovered him," Pioli said. "Like he didn't want people to think he had to work that hard to be good. He didn't want anyone to know he was trying to get an edge or that he had any shortcomings."

Acute competitiveness is a prerequisite for most elite athletes, but what has separated Brady from his peers is his insatiable appetite for perfecting every nuance. That attention to detail requires significant repetition and long, grueling workouts. Through the years, Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, to name a few, have joined him during the offseason in the pursuit of perfection.

Welker always stressed the need to be in concert with Brady for every single play, not just ones that featured him.

"If you make your routes look the same, especially at the start, it's hard for them to figure out what you are running," Welker once explained. "But to make that happen, you've got to invest a lot of time and sweat."

Pioli said the Patriots discovered Brady's penchant for precision once they drafted him and he joined their minicamp.

"I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of players, and I don't know I've ever come across one with attention to detail that Tommy has," Pioli said. "It's not done in a maniacal manner. He has a strong, intense yet composed way of fixing problems that he sees."

Troy Brown vividly remembers his first encounter with the rookie quarterback. Teammate Vincent Brisby didn't run a route to Brady's liking during OTAs, and Brady ran Brisby down the field and let him know it.

"Tom obsesses quite a bit about being absolutely perfect,'' Brown said. "I know that now. But at the time, I'm watching him fuss at Brisby, and I'm thinking, 'What's with this kid?'

"I loved it. Brisby did too. Even though Tom was the third-string quarterback, he wasn't afraid to speak up.''

Back then Brady grabbed his receivers in the film room, the classroom, the hallway or the field and ran his endless cadre of ideas past them. Some worked; some didn't.

"He'd get fixated on something he saw on film that another team did,'' Brown said. "We wouldn't get it exactly the way he wanted, and I'd have to tell him, 'It's not going to work. This is impossible for us to do.' Then we'd sit down and figure out a solution.''

As he grew older and more established, Brady didn't hesitate to tweak the game plan the coaches had drawn up for him.

"Tommy had a very specific vision of how he wanted you to run the play,'' Fauria explained. "Charlie Weis would put the play up on the board, and Tommy would say, 'No, don't run it like that. Run it like this.' He'd show me exactly how he wanted me to turn -- and I mean exactly, because you couldn't send mixed messages. You couldn't have him show you, then do it 80 percent of the way he said. No. It had to be exactly how he wanted it.

"When I looked at other teams, no other quarterback had that mentality except for Warren Moon, and he played until he was 44 years old. I said it eight years ago: Tom can play until he's 45.''

Brady expects his receivers to commit to the game plan with the same particular focus that he does. If they don't, they should expect to hear from him.

"You want to tick Tom off? Go out there with live bullets and not recognize what is going on," Fauria said. "Not having the awareness to adjust. And not just adjusting on the fly like some rogue fighter -- adjust how you should adjust. He hates it when people say, 'Be an athlete.' He says, 'Be a football player.' I was way too old to be running around out there by the time I went to the Patriots, but they got me because I knew where to go, and more importantly, I knew where Tommy wanted me to go.''

Brady is 10 years removed from his most recent Super Bowl ring. It gnaws at him. It is fodder for his critics, who say his time has come and gone.

His young family, along with a jet-setting wife, has required him to alter his lifestyle. He carves out time for needed rest, has completely revamped his diet and has added a conditioning regimen designed to keep him from suffering any nagging, avoidable injuries.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels noted the "glimmer" in Brady's eye during training camp -- a signal, McDaniels said, that he's approaching this season with the same passion and commitment as the previous 14.

"I saw it in every training camp," Brown said. "By then we had already done our [offseason] work in Foxborough -- he was single back then, so the receivers didn't have to fly to California -- and sometimes we'd have to run the same routes seven, eight, nine, 10 times in a row."

Nothing has changed. The mantra is the same: We will do this until we get it right.

Tom Brady is 37 years old, but he's still chasing his receivers down the field and telling them how it should be done. He is no longer the third-string quarterback, yet the urgency is intact.

He wants -- no, he needs -- things to be exactly right, even though it hasn't been that way for a very long time.