Well, that didn’t take long.
Tom Brady is back. It feels almost like he never left. Because, well, his “retirement” lasted all of about 40 days and included more hints and innuendos about coming back to football than anything else. Brady never really went away, appearing on podcasts and maintaining a steady social media presence. And if you saw the interaction between him and fellow GOAT (or GOATish) Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United’s match from earlier this weekend, it certainly didn’t look like a man totally at ease with his decision. (And, considering that Man U is owned by the Glazer family, who own the Bucs, one could surmise that Brady may have delivered the message in person, getting assurances about the cast to be put around him.)
As it turns out, Brady clearly was not fully comfortable with walking away. And the NFL is better for it.
Brady had another one of his timeless seasons in 2021. It was a masterpiece even by his impeccable standards. He flirted with 50 touchdown passes. He led the league in passing. He should have been the MVP. He led another ridiculous comeback in the postseason that should have been enough for a win. Would any of us be surprised at this point if his age 45 season isn’t just as remarkable?
I certainly would not. By making this about-face as quickly as he did, Brady can recommit to the schedule and regimen and lifestyle that has fueled this entire ridiculous career of his in the first place. He hasn’t missed a beat. This isn’t him having an epiphany in late July and trying to get in shape and make up for lost time and have to navigate a scenario he has never faced before. This, actually, bodes incredibly well for Brady, and the team he bid adieu to a few weeks back.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be just fine, thank you. They never closed the door on Brady coming back, with coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht making it clear they were operating as if their quarterback might want to opt back in at some point. Brady made this decision in plenty of time for them to adjust budgets and to navigate the salary cap. They already tagged receiver Chris Godwin. They will get more wiggle room from Brady with a reworked deal, and center Ryan Jensen’s recruitment now gets a boost ahead of the free-agent market opening.
They will continue to spend. They are not worried about going cash over cap. They just got the best player in the history of the game back at a time when most of the NFC – already the weaker conference – is eroding. The NFC South remains largely a wasteland; the Falcons keep clinging to a pipe dream they will win anything of note with Matt Ryan at QB, the Panthers brass is under fire and will have an uphill climb convincing Deshaun Watson to pick them over other suitors and the Saints have cap woes and are no longer coached by Sean Payton.
None of that, of course, was lost on Brady as he tried to avoid the siren call to return to Tampa. He can see a path to the Super Bowl. It’s not surprising he would allude to “unfinished business” in his posts announcing his return. He knows the Bucs are dedicated to keeping as much talent as possible, he knows that trying to come back and quench this flame after months away, let alone a year away, would only make it more difficult.
But don’t get that twisted with any conspiracy theories. This wasn’t some bizarre master plan. He didn’t set out to give everyone the okeydoke. No Machiavellian ploys here. Nothing of the sort.
Brady headed into the playoffs feeling as if this was the end. He believed he was at peace with moving on with his life. He wasn’t grieving the end of his playing career; he was embracing a life spent more around the ones he loves the most. Brady felt blessed that he was going out on his own terms, having accomplished more than anyone else, feeling healthy and youthful (44 ain’t old in real life, as we all know). This was as good as it was going to get. No one could ever comprehend the hex he had on Father Time, but nothing lasts forever, either. Brady realized all of that.
He had done the mental calculus in his head time and time again. He was following his heart. He was doing what he felt was right. He was ready.
Then, well, he wasn’t.
Everyone has the right to change their mind about such an individual decision. How many of us know someone who stepped away from a job they loved that they were still productive at, only to quickly regret it? And with the career span of an athlete – even a unicorn like Brady – so short, and their primes so finite, no one should question how and/or when they step aside, and whether or not they want to come back.
Brady, above anyone, deserves the right to follow his conscious and change his mind. And if ownership is fully on board with it, and recruited him and welcomed him back and promised him whatever he might want or need, as I suspect they will, all the better. And I imagine that Gronk is starting to feel the urge to play back in Tampa. And suddenly the Bucs are putting the band together again.
Another chapter in Brady’s unparalleled career is beginning. The last one closed as quickly as possible. More quickly than anyone else in the NFC would have liked. No one is guaranteed a storybook ending. Maybe it does get better than what he just did last year. Now we’ll find out if he can go out with a Lombardi in hand. Even at age 45, would you bet against Tom Brady?