Safe to say, this is not what Tom Brady came back for. A 31-14 blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card round the Tampa Bay Buccaneers barely qualified for and a final record of eight wins and 10 losses, counting this one, were not what he had in mind when he ended his short-lived retirement last spring. It doesn’t seem like how he’d want to go out, but maybe it has to be. Every love story is a tragedy if you wait long enough.
So maybe the fourth-and-6 heave to Julio Jones is the last we see from Brady, the best and most decorated quarterback ever in an NFL uniform, or maybe it’s not. After the Buccaneers went down 18-0 before halftime, Brady’s career obituary began to be authored in real time online and on the Monday Night Football broadcast, though only tentatively. Troy Aikman noted multiple times what “very well could be Brady’s last pass” and thanked Brady for the memories of a great career, but Joe Buck pointed out after the game that Brady told them in a production meeting that he planned to take ample time mulling his options for the future this offseason. “I’ll know when I know,” Buck said Brady told them.
After the game, Brady walked off the field, tipping his cap to the Tampa Bay fans on his way, and into the tunnel, where he kissed each of his waiting parents on the cheek. He then gave a short press conference in which he said the loss “just feels like the end of a season.”
“I’m going to go home and get a good night’s sleep, as good as I can tonight,” he said. “There’s been a lot of focus on this game. It’ll just be one day at a time, truly.”
Brady may take all the time he wants, but no one else will. The Buccaneers’ season is over, which means it’s open season on Brady speculation.
He could retire and go after any number of pursuits. Last May, Brady inked a 10-year, $375 million deal to join Fox as a broadcaster when he’s done playing. Maybe he’ll be up in the booth next weekend in San Francisco. He produced a sports comedy film, 80 for Brady, for Paramount Pictures that’s set to be released in theaters February 3. He could just go home and relax, maybe ski in Montana for the first time in years without fearing the potential repercussions of an accident. There is always the Kliff Kingsbury route.
He could also continue playing at age 46. Brady was awful Monday—he completed 53 percent of his passes, tying his season low from Week 2 at New Orleans, and threw his first red zone interception in more than three years—but by and large he was not the Buccaneers’ biggest problem this season, one in which a stack of offensive line injuries and lack of an effective running game, coupled with stubborn play-calling, bore a stagnant and ineffective offense that ranked 25th in points scored and 16th in offensive DVOA.
On Sunday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport listed the Titans, 49ers, and Raiders as teams that could consider Brady as a free agent in 2023; the Jets, Lions, and Dolphins also seem like teams that could realistically take a look. There is always a possible return to the Bucs, though given the frustrations of this season and the fact that Brady was already looking for greener pastures in places like Miami last offseason, that doesn’t seem like one of the more likely options.
If he isn’t done, Brady and any team going after him will have to reckon with the same thing that defined the matchup with the Cowboys: how many more hits he’s willing to take. Brady was sacked only twice but was pressured 28 percent of the time and played like he had a severe aversion to getting hit, something that was a familiar sight in the second half of the season. Brady had the fastest time to throw in the NFL this year, largely by necessity, but also because he is a 45-year-old, immobile quarterback. He has bent football to his will for two decades, but getting hit is the one thing the sport will never compromise on.
“You always want every year to end great,” Brady said. “Unfortunately, sports doesn’t work that way. Thirty-two teams in the league, and they’re all very competitive, but only one of them is really going to feel good at the end of the year.”
Before leaving, Brady gave what could loosely be interpreted as a goodbye to Tampa, though who knows if that’s really how he meant it.
“I love this organization,” Brady said. “It’s a great place to be. Thank you everybody for welcoming me. Just very grateful for the respect and I hope I gave it back to you guys.”
And with that, his 23rd season, and maybe more, came to an end.