Fans typically have one of two responses when a great athlete announces their career is over. Most of the time, we look back on a long and decorated career filled with memories and marvel, while acknowledging that their body had started to falter and that the time to walk away had come. But there are rare cases when an athlete retires at the top of their game, leaving us to wonder what might have been.
Tom Brady’s retirement this week somehow falls into both categories. Of course it feels as if the time had come for him to move on. Brady has been the face of the NFL for almost two decades, achieving more than any other quarterback in football history—and arguably more than any other athlete in team sports history, period. He leaves the league with seven Super Bowl wins, and he owns the records for virtually every major passing statistic, many of which should hold for decades. Having accomplished so much, Brady is ready for a life without football—and fans of pretty much every NFL team are ready for a life in which Brady isn’t playing football. We’ve been waiting a long time for our teams to win, dammit!
But despite having the longest, most successful career of any football player in history, Brady never dropped off. In his final season, he led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and passing touchdowns (43). He won the Super Bowl last season; this season, he led his team to a 13-4 record and a playoff win. In his final outing, Brady rallied the Buccaneers from a 27-3 second-half deficit to briefly tie the team’s divisional-round matchup against the Rams, who ended up making the Super Bowl. Many quarterbacks’ arm strength falters as they grow older—but Brady’s final touchdown pass was a gorgeous 55-yard bomb to Mike Evans, a perfect, powerful strike reminiscent of the throws he made to Randy Moss on the Patriots 15 years earlier.
The past few years have brought a slew of retirements by quarterbacks who dominated the NFL’s modern era. In every prior case, the retirement followed a significant decline in the quarterback’s quality of play. Drew Brees could no longer throw deep when he called it quits after 2020. Ben Roethlisberger looked like a QB from a different era this season before retiring in January; you could almost hear him emitting an exhausted grunt every time he wound up to throw a wobbly 6-yard pass on third-and-10. Peyton Manning may have gone out on top by retiring after the Broncos’ win in Super Bowl 50—but that Denver team was carried by its all-world defense, while Manning threw just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The 2015 Broncos often seemed better off with Brock Osweiler on the field.
With Brady, though? He’s legitimately as good as he’s ever been. He’ll either finish first or second in 2021 MVP voting. The Buccaneers were Super Bowl contenders for 2022 with Brady; without him, they probably won’t be. Sportsbooks gave the Bucs the fourth-best odds to win next season’s Super Bowl before Brady’s retirement. Now, FanDuel lists them with what are tied for the ninth-best odds. Unless another six-time Super Bowl champion decides to switch teams in the offseason, Tampa Bay may have to try to win next fall with Kyle Trask or Blaine Gabbert. Players like Andrew Luck may have retired at younger ages, but Brady’s retirement in his mid-40s probably has a bigger impact on the competitive future of the league.
Brady had said repeatedly over the years that his goal was to play until age 45. That proclamation seemed impossible, considering that there are a total of 22 passing attempts in league history thrown by quarterbacks aged 45 or older—and all of them came from Hall of Famer George Blanda, who only threw those passes in the 1970s because he hung around on rosters as a kicker and occasionally came into games as a backup.
But Brady never wavered, defying the aging curve while appearing in a Facebook show called Tom vs. Time and releasing a book titled The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance. As it turned out, living a lifetime of sustained peak performance involved buying expensive products from the TB12 store, and the book was widely derided as pseudoscience. (Brady also sold a $200 cookbook.) Eventually, Brady abandoned the idea that he would play until 45—and moved on to saying he could play until 50, or 55. Sometimes, he sounded like a narcissist who believed his on-field success meant that he was exempt from the concept of human mortality; other times, he simply sounded like a salesman with a warehouse full of anti-aging products.
Brady did fall short of his lofty projections, retiring at age 44. (Ha! I knew he was lying!) But in doing so he proved that all of his claims about being able to play deep into his 40s were legitimate, rather than delusional ramblings or an attempt to push product. Though he accomplished everything possible for a football player, I have to wonder: How far could Brady have gone?
Identifying Brady’s greatest trait as an athlete is hard. While some legends are known for possessing one iconic skill, Brady didn’t have a ridiculously strong arm or a stunning ability to power through defenders. I’m not actually sure Brady even knows how to sprint. His greatness came from qualities that are more difficult to define, like presnap anticipation, processing ability, and throwing accuracy. Oh, and the fact that his teams always won games. But as Brady continued thriving, something else emerged that separated his legend from anybody else’s: his ability to keep going.
Brady’s late-career production is silly. He has 22,938 passing yards after turning 40; that alone would rank 92nd all time in NFL history. Brady has more passing yards after turning 40 than Roger Staubach did in his entire Hall of Fame career, and more passing touchdowns after turning 40 (168) than Troy Aikman did in his entire Hall of Fame career. Every other QB in NFL history has combined for just 38 passing touchdowns after turning 42; Brady has 107. Brady is actually second in receiving yards after 40, since he caught a pass in 2018—only he and Jerry Rice have post-40 receptions.
Brady’s longevity makes his records insurmountable, at least for the next couple of decades. Aaron Rodgers feels like the only long-tenured QB who could conceivably catch some of those marks, but he would need to throw for another 175 touchdowns and more than 29,000 yards to do so. The 38-year-old Rodgers would basically have to staple Luck’s entire NFL career (171 touchdowns, 23,671 yards) on top of his current career. If Rodgers doesn’t do it, we’ll have to wait about 15 years for anybody else (Patrick Mahomes? Josh Allen?) to get close. And winning seven Super Bowls feels downright impossible.
But part of me wonders: How far could this have gone? Brady certainly had the ability to play for another year—could he have played for three more? Could he have really been an effective NFL quarterback at age 50? With Brady, it feels like we had a legitimate chance to see the maximum amount of football success that a human being could have in one lifetime. What would that look like? How much could he have done?
We’re left without an answer here. Some aging quarterbacks drop off astoundingly quickly. It seemed like Manning was set to play well into his 40s when he set an NFL record by passing for 55 touchdowns at age 37; just two years later, he posted career lows in virtually every category except for interception rate, which rose to a career high. Other quarterbacks aged more gracefully. Even as Brees stopped throwing the ball deep, he was still capable of sustaining high completion rates and leading efficient offenses. We’ll never know how long it would’ve taken for Brady to physically drop off—or how he would’ve adjusted to newfound physical limitations.
It feels probable that Brady could have continued to contend for Super Bowls for at least a few more years with these Buccaneers. He’d already passed virtually every significant quarterbacking milestone, but another three seasons could’ve seen him hit 100,000 career passing yards. It feels reasonable to expect that Brady could have thrived even if his throwing capabilities did lessen in his late 40s or early 50s—nobody was better at taking what a defense gave him, and Brady was the second-highest-rated QB on passes marked as “short” by Pro Football Focus in 2021. He may be retiring with a live arm, but it’s conceivable that he could have dinked and dunked his way to an eighth Super Bowl … or a ninth … or a 10th.
For the most part, I’m glad Brady is retiring. There were no more stories left to tell. He had already achieved every possible goal, and it’s well past time for other players to build their legacies. For the record, I am a fan of the New York Jets. Brady has haunted me enough for 10 lifetimes. If I never see him again, it’ll be too soon.
But if anybody was going to keep playing until he found the limit of what one football player could accomplish, it was Brady, who was compulsively driven to prove that he could just keep going. It’s strange to wonder what more we could have seen from him, considering that he played longer and did more than anybody else who previously played his position. Brady made it feel like he would try to achieve everything that was conceivably possible. In the end, he settled for simply achieving more than anybody else in football history ever has.