Even though he’s 44 years old and has nothing left in football to prove, Tom Brady’s retirement from the NFL on Feb. 1 didn’t make much sense.
His famous line from 2014 was, “When I suck, I’ll retire.” Brady did not suck in 2021, as the Bucs reached the Divisional Round of the playoffs and Brady compiled one of the best seasons of his career. He also was in great shape, after getting a nagging knee injury cleaned up last offseason.
“Every time I met with him, he felt fantastic,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said two weeks ago. “The way he was playing, I had myself convinced he was coming back.”
Arians’s intuition ultimately was correct. Just 40 days after announcing his retirement — without actually using the word “retire” or a derivative — Brady pulled an about-face and announced Sunday night he will play in 2022.
The surprise Sunday wasn’t that Brady un-retired, but that he said he will play for the Bucs again. There had been rampant speculation that Brady’s retirement was really about not wanting to play in Tampa, and at least one report emerged in the last month that Brady didn’t always click well with Arians.
Brady did discuss opportunities with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, potentially about joining the team’s front office. And if Brady did play next year, it was presumed he would want to play in San Francisco, in front of his parents in his hometown.
But Brady ended all doubt Sunday night, tweeting that “I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa.” He’s under contract for one more year for the Bucs, with a base value of $10.4 million and $4.5 million in incentives. It’s the steal of the century for the Bucs.
The gridiron, not the sideline, is where Brady belongs in 2022.
Brady always said he wanted to play until he was 45. He is also this close to breaking Steve DeBerg’s record as the oldest starting quarterback in NFL history (44 years, 279 days). Brady should break that record this fall when he is 45 years old and change on opening day.
Neither he nor the football world are ready to see him walk away yet. Brady’s retirement felt premature, even after 22 seasons, like he was giving in to family or business pressures before he was truly ready to step away from football.
Despite his age, Brady is still on top of his game. Last year he set career records in passing yards (5,316) and attempts (719), leading the NFL in both categories. Brady’s 43 touchdown passes also led the NFL. The Bucs lost their bid for back-to-back championships by losing to the Rams, but Brady almost pulled off another miraculous comeback, coming all the way back from a 27-3 deficit.
All of which is to say that Brady’s retirement had nothing to do with football, and everything to do with his outside life. It had to be eating up Brady inside to know that he still could be great and win championships.
Make no mistake, returning in 2022 is about one main objective — winning Lombardi Trophy No. 8. And Brady has a golden opportunity to pull it off.
The 2022 offseason is still in its infancy, but it looks like the balance of power has shifted significantly to the AFC, especially with Russell Wilson being traded from the Seahawks to the Broncos.
The NFC looks wide open for Brady and the Bucs. The Super Bowl champion Rams will again be formidable, though they were certainly not a dominant team in 2021. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will again be competitive. The Cowboys, 49ers, and Cardinals should be in the mix.
But that’s pretty much it as far as the top competition in the NFC. And the Bucs’ division, the NFC South, could be dreadful. The Falcons are looking at another rebuilding year with a 37-year-old Matt Ryan. The Panthers have been a mess and still can’t find a quarterback. And the Saints are a wild card — they may be competitive if they can swing a big trade for Deshaun Watson, or they might be totally rebuilding in their first year without coach Sean Payton.
Brady can already pencil in the Bucs for at least another spot in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Another Super Bowl appearance is absolutely within reach.
The Bucs have some work to do, first. As of Sunday they were still $11.2 million over the salary cap, which needs to be resolved by Wednesday at 4 p.m. And the Bucs have a significant list of their own free agents they need to retain — Rob Gronkowski, cornerback Carlton Davis, running backs Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Gio Bernard, center Ryan Jensen, pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and tight end O.J. Howard among them.
But Brady still has two of the best receivers in football in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who was just given the franchise tag. Gronk almost certainly will be back. And now with Brady in the fold, watch the veteran free agents line up to take less money to join him on one last ride.
Brady, of course, has nothing left to prove football wise. But he loves the game, he’s still in peak physical condition, he’s coming off one of his best seasons, the Bucs can load up for one last run, and the NFC has only a few teams standing in his way.
The surprise wasn’t that Brady un-retired Sunday. It was that he retired in the first place.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.