TAMPA — Tom Brady has become a fascinating paradox as he ages. The older he gets, the less we doubt whether he will still thrive on the football field.
At age 37, there were questions about Brady making it to 40. At age 40, there were questions about whether he could keep it going.
Now that he is 45, an unprecedented age for an NFL starting quarterback, it’s crazy to doubt whether Brady will still be on top of his game this season. At 44, he led the NFL and set a career high with 5,316 passing yards to go along with 43 touchdown passes. And he is still eating avocados and working out with Alex Guerrero every day.
Of course Brady can still wing it at 45.
“I told him, ‘Dude, you’re throwing it harder now than you did 10 years ago,’ ” said Bucs safety Logan Ryan, who spent the 2013-16 seasons with Brady in New England. “I was surprised with how hard he threw the ball. I mean, I haven’t seen any drop-off. So yeah, he obviously is as committed as ever.”
About that, though …
The question isn’t whether Brady can do it. It’s whether he wants to do it.
He did sign up for one more go-round with the Bucs in March. He did help recruit free agents to Tampa. And he is putting in the work here at training camp, slogging it out in the thick Florida heat.
Bucs coach Todd Bowles said he’s not concerned about Brady’s commitment level. Brady declined to talk this week, and has given only one press conference this training camp.
“He’s all-in — he’s been all-in,” Bowles said. “I don’t worry about that at all. He’s all-in like everybody.”
But it’s fair to question whether Brady is truly committed to playing for the Bucs in 2022. Because now we know better.
Now we know that playing for the Bucs was just a fallback once his real desire — running the Dolphins front office — fell through.
And now we know that Brady has a case of wandering eye. The NFL confirmed last week that Brady had “numerous and detailed” conversations with the Dolphins owners throughout the 2019 season, starting in August. His future, and where he would continue playing, was a potentially a major distraction throughout the season.
Brady also was fielding calls from the Dolphins again late last season, while he was supposed to be focusing on the Bucs’ playoff run.
Not to mention Brady already retired once this offseason. Though he reversed course after just 40 days, the thought of retiring is more in his head now than ever before.
When Brady returned to practice last weekend from an excused three-day absence, the Tampa Bay Times wrote that Bucs fans gave a “collective exhale” that he hadn’t decided to retire again.
But at 45, life might be starting to get in the way of Brady’s football career more than ever. His children are becoming teenagers. He has a clothing company (Brady Brand), a fitness company (TB12), and an NFT company (Autograph.io76) to run. He has a standing deal with Fox Sports to become a broadcaster whenever he’s done playing. He was supposed to be an executive and limited owner of the Dolphins this year.
And his three-day excused absence around his birthday last week may have been due to a vacation his wife, Gisele Bundchen, booked a while back thinking he would be retired.
Brady just looks grumpy on the practice field, too. The humidity doesn’t make anyone smile, but Brady seems perturbed about recent events — the tampering that led to the loss of a first-round pick for the Dolphins, and the state of the Bucs.
His best buddy, Rob Gronkowski, is retired. His top receiver, Chris Godwin, tore an ACL last Dec. 19 and may not be himself for a while. The Bucs are dangerously thin at tight end, featuring an aging Kyle Rudolph and a handful of rookies. Russell Gage, the No. 3 receiver, tweaked a hamstring Wednesday. Another aging veteran, Julio Jones, is suddenly being counted on for a major role.
And now Brady has lost one of the most important players on the offense, center Ryan Jensen, who suffered a knee injury last week. Backup center Robert Hainsey had an injury scare Wednesday, but it was just cramps.
The Bucs are still very much a favorite to win the NFC. But three weeks into training camp, they suddenly have more issues than expected.
“Nobody knows what the team’s going to look like,” Brady said last week. “You think you have a center and then he gets injured. The team’s different in one day.”
Brady also got annoyed at a fairly innocuous question: “How much did the way last season ended” — with a last-second playoff loss to the Rams — “weigh into your motivation to play again?” The question was asked on Aug. 1, a day before the Brady/Dolphins tampering story was confirmed by the NFL.
“I’m not — I don’t know,” Brady said. “Seems like forever ago. But thank you.”
It of course would be a major shock if Brady retired during training camp. Free agents came to Tampa specifically to play with him. Tickets were sold specifically because Brady would be quarterback. And in Week 1, he will become the first 45-year-old starting QB in NFL history. There’s too much invested for him to walk away.
But the Bucs should be concerned about whether Brady is truly focused on this year, and only this year.
If the Bucs are struggling midseason, will he again call the Dolphins to line up a gig for next year? “You know, if the Tua thing doesn’t work out …”
Will Brady call up the 49ers? “You know, if the Trey Lance thing doesn’t work out …”
Will he be talking with his Fox Sports contacts all season?
There is no doubt that Brady can thrive on the field this year. The question is whether he will stay motivated and avoid distractions.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.