Editor’s note: This piece was originally published after reports of Tom Brady’s retirement from the NFL first surfaced. It was updated on Tuesday morning after Brady made his official announcement.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in last year’s Super Bowl, Brady’s three children and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, found him on the field. As the confetti rained down, Bündchen, who’d wanted Brady to retire for years, cut to the chase, according to Seth Wickersham’s book It’s Better to Be Feared. “What more do you have to prove?” she asked.
Brady has nothing left to prove on the field. On Tuesday, Brady confirmed on Instagram that he is retiring at age 44 after 22 NFL seasons.
“I have always believed the sport of football is an ‘all-in’ proposition—if a 100 percent competitive commitment isn’t there, you won’t succeed, and success is what I love so much about our game,” he wrote. “There is a physical, mental, and emotional challenge EVERY single day that has allowed me to maximize my highest potential. And I have tried my very best these past 22 years. There are no shortcuts on the field or in life.
“This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore. I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.”
Brady’s career is the Grand Canyon: No amount of snapshots can capture its sheer scope. But we can try to examine his legacy by using a wider lens. You know the stats by now. Seven Super Bowl rings, which is not only more than any other player in NFL history but more than any other team in NFL history. Brady has the same number of Super Bowl appearances as the Bears, Titans, Jets, Chargers, Saints, Browns, Cardinals, Jaguars, Lions, and Ravens combined. Brady made 10 Super Bowl appearances in his 20 seasons as a starter, meaning he was more likely to make the Super Bowl (50 percent) than Michael Jordan was to make a shot (49.7 career field goal percentage). The Belichick-Brady Patriots won the AFC East at a higher rate (89.5 percent) than Jordan made free throws. Brady has spent more than 400 days—more than a year of his life—in the playoffs. He played 17 games, a full season, in the divisional round and went 14-3. Brady grew up in the Bay Area worshipping Joe Montana’s 49ers, and now Brady has more Super Bowl wins and the same number of playoff victories (35) as the 49ers franchise, which was established three decades before Brady was born.
But aside from the winning—and Brady’s main legacy is the winning, obviously—Brady transcended rarefied air and created his own atmosphere at the end of his career. While the Buccaneers lost to the Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs last week, Brady is going out with one last win: He beat Father Time.
Tom Brady is 44 years old. He was the oldest active player in the NFL this season by four years. He was the oldest person to ever play quarterback for the majority of the season. And there’s a serious argument that he was the best player in the NFL this season. He will likely come in second in MVP voting to Aaron Rodgers, and if those same voters could re-vote to include what we’ve seen in the playoffs, he might have overtaken Rodgers as the winner (MVP votes are submitted at the end of the regular season and revealed before the Super Bowl).
Brady led the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2021. Aside from those counting stats, he also led the league in advanced stats like PFF’s wins above replacement and was PFF’s highest graded quarterback in 2021. Brady is (probably) walking away, and that’s the point—he’s walking away, not limping.
Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger retired because their arms stopped cooperating. Brady has played far longer than all of them—he’s won as many Super Bowls in his 40s as Manning did in his career—and he became a better athlete as he got older. Brady is faster than he was 20 years ago. You can see this by watching him play (he ran for 81 yards this year, his highest total in a decade). Brady can throw the ball farther now, too. Hell, he looks better at 44 than he did at 23.
It is one thing for Brady to win as much as he has in the past 20 years. It’s another thing for him to break the aging curve as thoroughly as he has. (You could split Brady’s Patriots career in half and he’d make the Hall of Fame twice, and then he started a third Hall of Fame career with the Buccaneers). But it’s another thing altogether to end his career in Tampa Bay while performing at such a high level.
In the Bucs’ divisional-round loss to the Rams, Tampa Bay’s 27-3 comeback came close to replicating the Patriots’ 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. (The Rams, unlike the Falcons, managed to avoid overtime by winning with a field goal as time expired.) Despite the early postseason exit, Brady proved in the past two seasons that if quarterbacks are devout enough in treating their bodies like temples, they can bend the natural aging curve for athletes to their will. Not only did Brady extend the aging curve, but he inverted it. He’s reached previously unreachable heights, stayed there longer than anyone thought was possible, and is somehow still trending up.
It is obvious that Brady can keep playing if he wants to. But it seems the cost of playing has finally outweighed the benefits. Football-wise, Tampa Bay’s cap situation next year means they’ll likely lose key players: Running back Leonard Fournette, receiver Chris Godwin, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, guard Aaron Stinnie, center Ryan Jensen, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, cornerback Carlton Davis, and safety Jordan Whitehead are all set to hit free agency. That constitutes nine of the 22 players who started for the Buccaneers in their Super Bowl win. And with the Buccaneers likely taking a step back, it probably made Bündchen’s query to Brady ring that much louder.
In an episode of Brady’s Facebook show, Tom Vs. Time, Bündchen said, “Football, as far as I’m concerned, is his first love.” But a departure would signify that Brady may now be choosing family and fatherhood over football. Aside from the violent nature of the game and the risk of serious injury, there’s also the time commitment. Perhaps the biggest impediment to an athlete’s longevity is their ability to get into peak physical condition each season. Brady’s solution to this issue has been to always stay in game shape (or close to it). As he got older, that took an already demanding six- to nine-month football schedule and turned it into a year-round exercise. At some point it probably gets frustrating for Brady’s family to have his wide receivers join them on family vacations.
In 2018, Bündchen wrote Brady a letter to explain her feelings. Brady later detailed this letter in an interview with Howard Stern.
“She felt like I would play football all season and she would take care of the house and all the sudden when the season would end, I would be like, ‘Great, let me get into all my other business activities, let me get into my football training,”‘ Brady told Stern. “And she’s sitting there going, ‘Well, when are you going to do things for the house? When are you going to take the kids to school and do that?’ And that was a big part of our marriage. I had to check myself. Because she’s like, “I have goals and dreams too.’”
On that podium after the Bucs won the Super Bowl—with the biggest margin of victory in a Super Bowl in Brady’s career—Gisele asked Brady what else he had to prove. Brady tried to change the subject and turned to his kids. “You guys happy?” Brady asked. “I’m happy.”