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Opinion: Tom Brady had better heed warning signs when considering 2020 season

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 12/3/2019 Nancy Armour, USA TODAY
a person wearing a helmet: Tom Brady will turn 43 before the start of the 2020 season. © Thomas Shea, USA TODAY Sports Tom Brady will turn 43 before the start of the 2020 season.

Time will eventually win out over Tom Brady. The growing question is how badly the New England Patriots quarterback is willing to lose. 

Anyone who has watched New England this season, or checked Brady’s stats, knows the 42-year-old is a lesser version of himself. His completion rate, touchdowns, yardage per attempt and quarterback rating are way down, and the numbers have gotten worse as the season has gone on. His laser-like accuracy is off, evidenced by the passes that sailed over his receivers’ heads or beyond their outstretched hands in Sunday night's loss vs. Houston, and he has struggled against pressure.

Yes, the Patriots are closing in on another AFC East title and a first-round bye. They might even wind up back in the Super Bowl. It’s also true the entire offense has struggled, and the absence of Rob Gronkowski has been felt more deeply than expected. 

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But the days of Brady being, well, Brady, conjuring victories out of nothing or single-handedly carrying the Patriots down the stretch, are no longer assured. That isn’t likely to change, considering he’ll turn 43 the month before the 2020 season starts. In fact, the decline will only accelerate, making it more and more obvious that his skills have deteriorated.

Which leads to an uncomfortable, if not awkward, decision for Brady and the Patriots this offseason.

On paper, Brady’s contract runs through 2021. But according to multiple reports, it voids after this season and includes a provision that won't allow New England to franchise him. Given that he's said he wants to play until he's 45, he's going to have options.

Brady won the Patriots six Super Bowl titles and they have no heir apparent, so owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick aren’t likely to rush him out the door. If he does decides to walk, some other team will gladly scoop up the future Hall of Famer. 

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Brady is also a fanatic about his fitness and his diet, and says that’s what has kept him playing this long. No doubt he’ll tell himself that redoubling his efforts in the offseason, drinking a few more protein shakes and taking more of trainer Alex Guerrero’s snake oil will get him back to his MVP form.

But history is littered with the names of athletes who didn't see the steep decline coming and hung on too long.

Brett Favre had the Minnesota Vikings within a game of the Super Bowl in 2009. The next season, his last, he recorded career worsts in yardage, touchdowns, interception percentage and quarterback rating. Johnny Unitas was benched in his final season in Baltimore and again the next year, his last, in San Diego. 

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Shaquille O’Neal was a shell of his former self in Cleveland and Boston. Stumbling around the outfield wasn’t the only indignity of Willie Mays’ days in New York. And on it goes.

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If Brady insists on playing next season, or the season after that, there is no guarantee his stellar career won’t end in pitiful fashion. In fact, the odds of that are better than him going out in a blaze of glory.

Like Brady, New England’s roster is aging. Eight players, six of them starters, are in their second decade in the NFL. More than half of the 53-man roster – 28 players – has been in the league for five seasons or longer. Even if Belichick wanted to de-emphasize Brady’s role in the offense, how would he do that? With two of the team's top three running backs being over 28 next season.

New England’s gap on the rest of the NFL has narrowed considerably, too. Lamar Jackson is redefining both the quarterback position and the AFC’s natural order this season, and New England will likely have to go through him and the Baltimore Ravens just to get to the Super Bowl in Miami.

Patrick Mahomes makes Kansas City a threat every year, and that’s with the Chiefs having a mediocre defense. The Patriots got a good look Sunday at the trouble Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans can pose.

Watching Brady, knowing what’s inevitable, it’s hard not to think of another future Hall of Famer who stuck around even though he was in obvious decline.

Peyton Manning struggled mightily in his final season, missing six games with injuries and being ineffective in most others. Like Brady, he was bailed out repeatedly by a stingy and opportunistic defense and stellar special teams. When Manning and the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, he wisely walked away, lucky to have been spared an ugly and embarrassing exit.

It's a tough decision, leaving the game you've loved and played your entire life. But better for Brady to leave when there's still a debate than wait for the answer to become painfully obvious.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Tom Brady had better heed warning signs when considering 2020 season

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