Tom Brady didn’t want to offer any clues, or even acknowledge that he is even thinking about retiring from the NFL.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Brady said Sunday after the Bucs’ 30-27 divisional-round loss to the Rams. “Truthfully, guys, I’m thinking about this game, and not thinking about anything past five minutes from now.”
Brady certainly had a lot to process on Sunday, and not just whether he would retire at age 44, after 21 seasons as a starter and seven Super Bowl victories. Mostly, he had to accept that Sunday’s game went off script. There would be no improbable comeback win. No shot to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Brady almost added another legendary chapter to his incomparable career, helping erase a 27-3, late-third-quarter lead. It was Super Bowl LI against the Falcons all over again.
The Rams, with a 99 percent win probability, got tight in the fourth quarter with two fumbles and a missed field goal. Brady came roaring back with three touchdown drives in the second half and tied the game, 27-27, with just 42 seconds left. Even the Rams’ defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, was the Falcons’ assistant head coach in that Super Bowl five years ago.
Yet this comeback wasn’t meant to be. Matthew Stafford hit receiver Cooper Kupp for 44 yards with 28 seconds left, setting up a game-winning 30-yard field goal to send the Rams, not the Bucs, to the NFC Championship game.
“Obviously we showed a lot of fight,” Brady said. “But at the end of the day if you lose a game you lose a game.”
In the Patriots’ comeback against the Falcons, the chips all fell perfectly. The offense scored touchdowns and 2-point conversions, the defense forced turnovers and punts, and the coaches dialed up all the right calls.
Sunday, Brady’s defense and coaching let him down. On Kupp’s big reception, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles curiously called a seven-man blitz. Kupp, who won this year’s triple crown as the NFL’s leader in catches, yards and touchdowns, burned right past safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in one-on-one coverage.
Coach Bruce Arians said there was an error on the play — not everyone heard the play call, and not enough players were blitzing.
“It was an all-out blitz. We should’ve gotten a ton of pressure,” Arians said. “Never second guess. Just make sure all 11 [players] are on the same page.”
Brady signed a contract that locks him in with the Buccaneers through the 2022 season, but in recent days, rumors and reports have emerged that Brady is not yet committed to another season.
The social media team for his TB12 brand dropped one hint on Sunday, tweeting shortly after the loss that had the hashtag, “#KeepGoing.” But Brady himself was in no mood to talk about his future.
“We’ll just take it day by day and see where we’re at,” he said.
If it was Brady’s final game, it wasn’t his prettiest stat line, but will go down as one of his grittier performances. Playing without his favorite target (Chris Godwin), his former No. 3 receiver (Antonio Brown), and without his All Pro right tackle (Tristan Wirfs), Brady practically willed the depleted Bucs back into the game.
Brady threw 54 passes, completing 30 of them for 329 yards and a touchdown. He hit Mike Evans for an improbable 55-yard score with 3:20 left to give the Bucs hope. Leonard Fournette capped off the comeback with a 9-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 with 42 seconds left.
Brady noted that the Bucs were so injured that their slot receiver was backup tight end Cameron Brate.
“Not a ton of healthy bodies, but we found a way to get the ball in the end zone there against a really good defense,” Brady said.
Brady also took a beating. The Rams sacked him three times. Aaron Donald hit Brady three times, and Von Miller, the old nemesis from Denver, pestered Brady all day with nine hurries and finally got him down with a strip-sack in the fourth quarter.
Miller also left Brady with blood dripping from his lip in the second quarter with a shot underneath his chin strap. Miller’s hit didn’t earn a flag, but Brady drew a 15-yard penalty for yelling at referee Scott Hochuli. Brady wouldn’t reveal what he said.
“I’d get fined if I say something,” he said.
Brady once famously said about the end of his career, “When I suck, I’ll retire.” That was seven years ago. Even at 44, an age when most quarterbacks are long retired, Brady definitely does not suck.
Brady led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (42) this year. He won a division title and is in the running for the MVP. He threw the ball 719 times in the regular season, the second-most in NFL history.
Yet no one could blame him if Sunday’s game was it. He has played in 365 career games (including playoffs) and has achieved everything a football player could possibly achieve. He has the most championships, most of the passing records, a beautiful family that doesn’t get to see him so much during football season, and a plethora of off-field business opportunities awaiting him. There aren’t many 44-year-olds who get a bloody gash on their lip at work.
You win or you learn.— TB12sports (@TB12sports) January 23, 2022
There are no failures, only lessons. When you fall you need to pick yourself up with greater enthusiasm than you went down. Now we look back on an incredible season, learn our lessons, and get up... because even greater things are coming.#KeepGoing pic.twitter.com/tCXI3q1J5p
The Bucs will take him back as long as he wants to play.
“It’s totally up to Tom,” Arians said after the game.
It would qualify as a major surprise if Brady does retire. He has long said he wants to play until he’s 45, and he can accomplish that feat next year. Brady told NBC that his “perfect ending” entails “winning the Super Bowl,” which he will not do this year.
And Brady has a lot of Peter Pan in him, in that he doesn’t want to, nor have to, grow up. He has played football for more than half his life, and like many retired athletes, is afraid of being lost without having the locker room atmosphere and regimented schedule of a football season. As long as his family is OK with him playing, and as long as Brady is willing to put in the offseason work, he can play as long as he wants.
“He always says he’s got something to prove,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said.
Sunday’s loss might leave Brady feeling like he still has something left to prove. No quarterback has won eight Super Bowls, after all. But Brady isn’t ready to make any decisions yet. His mind was on the comeback that wasn’t meant to be.
“We were down a bunch, and a lot of guys made a bunch of different plays to get us back into it,” Brady said. “But it all sucks to lose in the end.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.