In May 2009, Tom Brady told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King he felt “pretty empty” limping off the field with a torn ACL during Week 1 of the 2008 season.
“You go down, they take you off the field, the ref blows the whistle, the 25-second clock starts, and they play the game without you,” Brady said. “You’re like, ‘Wow. That’s really what it’s like. They play without you.’”
More than a decade later, Brady will play without the Patriots. Brady will sign a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for roughly $30 million per year, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The Brady sweepstakes ultimately came down to the Chargers and Buccaneers, with the Buccaneers prevailing. The reports that Brady was headed to Tampa came hours after he posted two messages on Instagram announcing his departure from New England. In one post, he thanked everyone in the Patriots organization, and in the second, he thanked New England’s fans.
Brady leaving New England ends perhaps the greatest run in the history of American team sports. In a league designed for parity and short-term success cycles, the Patriots under Brady and Bill Belichick reached 13 AFC championship games and nine Super Bowls while capturing six Lombardi trophies in 20 years. In just two decades, they tied the mark for the most Super Bowl wins for any franchise. The Brady-Belichick Patriots will be defined not just by winning, but by reinvention. In the first trilogy of Super Bowls, Brady was a game manager. In the next half-decade, he graffitied the NFL record books with an 18-1 season in 2007 with an offense that created modern football. When Brady entered the league, football had no definitive Greatest of All Time icon. Now that he leaves the Patriots, he is almost unanimously considered that dude.
Brady’s last pass as a Patriot was a pick-six, but in retrospect, it was the perfect audition to replace Jameis Winston, who ended his time with Tampa Bay on a pick-six to set the record for pick-sixes in a season.
Now, like thousands of other snowbirds, Brady is moving to Florida as he contemplates retirement. But TB to TB is a fascinating football situation. Brady inherits perhaps the league’s best receiver duo in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but there are questions about his fit with the team. Head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich (who is two years younger than Brady) have a passing attack defined by deep throws downfield. Evans and Godwin made their money last year on these deep passes. Brady turns 43 in August, and anyone who has watched him the past two years knows his arm strength has declined. Brady has said he wants to play until he is 45, but playing until 45 while suddenly becoming a deep passer might be fighting a two-front war with Father Time and Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. The Buccaneers will have to adjust their offense that led the league in passing yards last year to work in more short throws for Brady. The Buccaneers have the worst running back depth in the league, so don’t look for them to lean on it in 2020. Tampa Bay’s tight ends are talented, which would be good news for Brady except that Arians rarely uses them (ask O.J. Howard’s fantasy owners how often he played last year). Rapoport reported that Brady was more concerned with staying on the East Coast to be near his family in Massachusetts (Florida is far closer than Los Angeles) than any specific scheme change, so it is possible Brady and Arians are banking on the fact they can figure out the schematic changes this offseason.
The positive news for Brady is the Buccaneers have a good offensive line whose core is signed for the next three seasons, so he’ll have some protection if he stays in Tampa until he is 45. Evans and Godwin are the best receivers he has had since Randy Moss was on the Patriots 10 years ago. If Brady wants to prove what he can do as a passer, Tampa is a hell of a place to show off. It’s also fun for us. The Bucs schedule will pit Brady against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against the Falcons, a revenge game against the Giants, and a what could have been matchup against the Chargers (farewell, AFC East cupcake games). Not to mention there is a real chance we see Brady, the greatest football player of all time, wearing a creamsicle orange alternate Buccaneers uniform at some point in the next two years.
The image of Brady wearing a “12” in a Tampa uniform is jarring enough to beg the question of how this all happened. In short, it seems that working anywhere for 20 years can lead to some dissatisfaction, even if it comes with unprecedented success. Brady almost left Patriots training camp in August 2019 because he was so frustrated with his contract negotiation, according to NBC’s Tom E. Curran. There was a strange dispute between his personal trainer, his team, and his former backup Jimmy Garoppolo before Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers a few years ago that rankled Brady’s relationship with the team, according to a report by Seth Wickersham. There are surely more stories to come out about the degree to which Brady’s relationship with the team, particularly with Belichick, had frayed.
Some of those stories might come from Brady himself. He announced last week he started a production company and the first production will likely be the behind-the-scenes look at his free-agency decision. Perhaps somewhere in those interviews, Brady will mention the dozens (hundreds?) of players he saw the Patriots cut ties with one year too early rather than one year too late, one of the harsher hallmarks of the Patriot Way. Every time Brady saw a talented player cut or traded, somewhere in the back of his mind, he must have wondered when his time would come. If there is any evidence Brady was paying attention in New England, it’s that he left the team before the team could leave him. Brady got a preview of life without football when he tore his ACL in 2008. That year also showed the Patriots a preview of life without Brady. It remains the only year in the past 17 that they lost the AFC East. Tom Brady on the Buccaneers is mind-boggling, but he learned a long time ago what we are all grappling with now. The Patriots will play without him.