It appears that Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is at long last done with the National Football League. In a Twitter video that ran the gamut from the emotional to the stoic, Brady announced Wednesday that he is retiring from the greatest career in the history of North American team sports. After 23 seasons, 10 Super Bowl appearances (nine of them with the New England Patriots) and an unparalleled seven rings at the game’s most important position, the 45-year-old Brady has decided to hang it up.
While there will undoubtedly be those who predict that this retirement, like last year’s, will be short-lived, the tone of the video Brady posted suggests otherwise. He said, “I know the process was a pretty big deal last time, so when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first. I won’t be long winded. You only get one super emotional retirement essay, and I used mine up last year, so really thank you guys so much to every single one of you for supporting me.”
Another reason to assume that Brady is retired for good is that this was the season when Father Time finally caught up to the ageless one. The great athlete who is unable to quit before his body and his reputation suffer is practically a cliché. This football season Brady proved for the first time in his charmed life that he would be no exception to the rule. He led a team to a losing record for the first time in his 22 seasons as a starter, and he only made the playoffs because every division sends a team, and the other teams in the NFL South were even more atrocious.
Then on Jan. 16, Brady’s Bucs lost, 34-14, at home to the Dallas Cowboys (and the game really wasn’t even that close). Brady completed 35 of 56 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, finishing with a subpar passer rating of 72. (A perfect rating is 158.3.)
Given that the miserable end to his season came so soon after his October divorce from supermodel Gisele Bundchen, one has to conclude that there have been better years in the life of Tom Brady. Bundchen reportedly was upset that Brady announced his retirement at the end of the 2021-22 season and then announced his return to the league a few weeks later.
And what an ending it would have been had Brady stayed retired. In that 2021-22 season, Brady not only put distance between himself and just about every NFL quarterback in the records book, but he also won the quarterbacking triple crown, leading the league in completions, passing yards and touchdowns. His last playoff game of the season featured a ferocious playoff comeback against the Los Angeles Rams and was reminiscent of his win against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI after his New England Patriots team trailed 28-3 in the second half. In the Rams game, the Bucs were down 27-3 before Brady brought them back to a 27-27 tie. But then, he stood on the sidelines as he watched the Rams win, 30-27, with a field goal.
Though his 2021-22 season ended with a playoff loss, it was a heroic loss. And, to repeat, he led all NFL quarterbacks in the big stats. It would have been a retirement unlike any in football history. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders are among the scant number of NFL greats who retired at the top, but they were 29 and 31 respectively. Brady going out as a still dominant 44-year-old would have cemented his status as the only person who stared the supposedly undefeated Father Time in the face and made him blink.
“Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn’t end.” This pearl of high-end wisdom comes from the decidedly low-end Tom Cruise bartender film “Cocktail.” And it applies to the career of the greatest football winner ever.
To put Brady’s 10 Super Bowl appearances in perspective, consider that Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, the two quarterbacks behind him in most of the relevant quarterback stats, appeared in five Super Bowls combined. He won two more Super Bowls than those two greats appeared in.
Leading a team with a losing record and then playing a dud of a playoff game does nothing to grievously harm Brady’s legacy, but it is a red mark on the ledger of his storybook career, and it’s not the only one.
There was “spygate,” a scandal that started in 2007 and lasted several years. It involved Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, and the ethically barren practice of videotaping the closed practices of the New York Jets. Brady was seen to have benefited statistically from insider knowledge he should not have had. Then there was “spygate,” where Brady was suspended four games after the league found out that it was “more probable than not” that he was aware that two members of the Patriots staff had been surreptitiously deflating footballs so they could be easier to throw and catch.
No great quarterback ever faced so much scrutiny. This is partly due to his undeniable perch at the top of his sport, because Brady was just so perfect (handsome, successful, wealthy) and also because his career was so unlikely. (After playing at Michigan, he was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft.) There have always been people who have looked to tear him down, yet he has always been teflon, his greatness in the biggest games answering all questions. But eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he did it to himself. He could triumph over J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald. He could outduel Manning and Brees. But, in the end, he couldn’t face down the clock.
If he changes course yet again (and comes back from a second retirement, a la Michael Jordan in 2001) it will likely be even uglier. Because all Hall of Fame athletes think they have one more year … until they don’t.