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Why Is Tom Brady Really Coming Back? And How Will His Return Affect the Offseason?

On Sunday night, Brady announced he’s unretiring and returning to football for his 23rd season. What does this mean for him, the Buccaneers, and the rest of the NFL?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Back when Facebook was still called Facebook and certainly before any of those nightmare 3D avatars existed, the company let Tom Brady produce a show called Tom vs. Time. The theme, as you can imagine, was that Brady was running out of time.

Filmed in the winter of 2017-18, the season when the New England Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, Tom vs. Time delivered a transparent—by Patriots standards—view into the Brady-Bündchen household. (This is the show where Brady kissed his son on the lips.) In perhaps the most revealing moment of the entire series, Gisele Bündchen holds Brady’s hand while explaining how he keeps moving the goalposts on his retirement. “Football, as far as I’m concerned, is his first love,” she says. “It really is. I think it’s his main love, quite frankly.”

On Sunday, Brady announced that he and his main love are getting back together. Just six weeks after Brady confirmed he was leaving football by saying he would no longer make the “competitive commitment” to play, he posted another social media update to announce he is coming back:

These past two months I have realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands. That time will come. But it’s not now.

I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. Without them, none of this is possible.

I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. We have unfinished business.


So Brady is back, and it’s been exactly 40 days and 40 nights since he retired (which basically makes him football’s Moses). But even though he’s committed to playing this year, the rest of us are still left with plenty of questions: What else is left for him to conquer? Will he be playing for the Buccaneers, or some other team? And how will this decision affect the NFL offseason?

There’s not much left for Brady to chase. He’s played in the NFL for 22 seasons, earned three MVP awards, and won seven championships—surpassing the challenge Michael Jordan issued on a golf course in 2015, when he told Brady to “come back to me when you’ve got six championships” (per Seth Wickersham’s book It’s Better to be Feared). Those seven Super Bowl rings are more than any NFL franchise. What more can a man want?

The answer might be simple: Back in 2014, Brady said he would retire when he sucks, and he does not suck yet. He led the NFL in passing yards last year and finished second to Aaron Rodgers in MVP voting. Brady said for so long that he wanted to play until he was 45, and maybe he decided it was silly to quit after having such an accomplished season at 44. He has already defeated Joe Montana and Jordan, and he currently has a huge lead on Father Time. Whatever megalomania Brady has that got him here may keep him going as long as humanly possible (if not longer). When Brady said he’d play until he was 45, it seemed ridiculous. Now, he’ll turn 45 this year and it seems possible he could play until he is 50.

Then there’s the argument that perhaps Brady never truly retired at all. In his original retirement post, he never used the word “retirement.” He also inserted a strategic “right now” when saying he’d leave the “field of play.” As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has been screaming from the rooftops for some time now, perhaps Brady was trying to use retirement as leverage to leave the Buccaneers, not football writ large.

Brady still has one year left on his deal with Tampa Bay, but Tampa is not as appealing a destination as it was when Brady joined two seasons ago. The team is set to lose nearly half of its starters to retirement or free agency this offseason—including Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, and both starting offensive guards, Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet. Perhaps Brady was ready for yet another change.

It wouldn’t be ridiculous for Brady to ask Tampa Bay to trade him. The Bucs’ franchise value rose by $660 million between when Brady signed there in March 2020 when they won the Super Bowl less than a year later, according to Forbes. Brady could simply tell the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, “you’re welcome” and ask them to send him somewhere of his choosing. And maybe he has already done that.

On Saturday, Brady took in the Manchester United–Tottenham game at Old Trafford. He tweeted about who he was pulling for and posed for a picture with Cristiano Ronaldo. (Their jawlines probably should never be in a photo together, kind of like how the only two people who know the 11 herbs and spices at KFC are not allowed to fly on the same plane. But I digress.)

Manchester United is also owned by the Glazer family. Brady was at this game one day before he unretired. It doesn’t take a Matt Patricia–level rocket scientist to connect the dots. The main question is whether they were discussing what Brady needs to come back to the Bucs, or what it would take to get him out.

We will likely soon find out. Brady mentioned in his unretirement announcement that he’s excited to return to Tampa for his 23rd season, which seems pretty convincing. But it’s worth noting that former Patriots personnel executive and current NFL Network analyst Scott Pioli suggested on Sunday night that Brady may not be with the Bucs for long. “I’m sure he loves his teammates,” Pioli said. “But there’s something telling me that [his] 2022 season will not be in Tampa Bay.”

Needless to say, either scenario will throw quite the wrench in the NFL offseason. Free agency begins this week, which is the de facto deadline for these huge transactions and clearly the impetus for Brady’s timing. But what happens next?

An obvious team that could be in play for Brady is San Francisco. Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t good enough to elevate the 49ers to a Super Bowl, and Montana himself says second-year QB Trey Lance is not ready to take over.

Perhaps Brady could slide in—especially after 49ers GM John Lynch asked Bill Belichick about Brady before eventually trading for Jimmy G in 2017. Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan also discussed signing Brady in 2020 before deciding to stick with Garoppolo. Surely that decision doesn’t haunt them every day.

This move would make perfect sense for Brady. The team just made the NFC championship game and has a phenomenal roster. Brady was a 49ers fan growing up. And while he long ago surpassed Montana in every conceivable way statistically, imagine if Brady were able to take up his beloved mantle as 49ers QB and displace Garoppolo in the process. It’s one thing to step into your idol’s shoes. It’s another to immediately use those shoes to step on your one-time replacement’s throat.

If not the 49ers, it’s hard to see where Brady else could land. Perhaps he could be traded for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and reunite with his former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But if that sounds far-fetched, then every other destination does too.

The Saints are also looking for a quarterback, but unless former head coach Sean Payton also unretires, that seems unlikely—not to mention the Bucs wouldn’t want Brady to go to a division rival. There are AFC teams who would be contenders with Brady at QB, but would he really go to the Pittsburgh Steelers after two decades of battling them in New England? That would feel wrong. Ditto for the Colts. Remove the teams obviously out of the running, like the Carolina Panthers, and suddenly it seems like Brady’s only real options are staying in Tampa or going to the 49ers.

If Brady does stick with the Bucs, he has some recruiting to do. Tampa Bay is set to lose its entire interior offensive line, including guards Cappa and Marpet. The team also could lose Gronkowski to retirement and its top two running backs, Fournette and Ronald Jones, to free agency. That’s about half of their starters on offense, and the defense is in a similar boat: Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, cornerback Carlton Davis, and safety Jordan Whitehead are all free agents. Some of the cap space the Bucs could use to retain these guys was already spent to franchise-tag Chris Godwin, who is recovering from a torn ACL. There’s a reason Brady looked at this mess at the end of the season and decided against running it back.

But perhaps the prospect of trying to win another Super Bowl with Brady at the helm will convince some of these guys to return at a discount—or bring other ring-chasing veterans aboard to replace them. Bucs center Ryan Jensen was set to enter free agency this week, but he returned on a three-year, $39 million contract just hours after Brady announced he is returning. Surely other players will follow.

Tampa Bay has a pretty easy path to the postseason. Considering the Panthers and Saints are in complete limbo at quarterback and the Falcons are the Falcons, it seems any Brady Bucs team will still make the playoffs. And once Brady is in the playoffs, anything can happen.

That is probably the simplest reason Brady is returning. As Gisele said in that Facebook show, football is her husband’s main love. And after spending a month watching his own professional funeral, Brady decided he wasn’t done yet. That’s pretty meta.