Tom Brady has already had the storybook ending to his nonpareil football career. You saw it. And if you’re a Patriots fan, you remember it with great fondness, even if it wasn’t the end at all.
With 7:36 remaining in Super Bowl LIII and the Patriots tied with the Rams, 3-3, Brady threaded a gorgeous pass to Rob Gronkowski, who despite a gaggle of Rams around him dove and caught the ball at the LA 2-yard line, a 29-yard gain. On the next play, Sony Michel burrowed into the end zone for the game’s lone touchdown. A few minutes later, the confetti rained in Atlanta as the Patriots collected their sixth Lombardi Trophy with a 13-3 win.
Had Brady called it a career after that game, well, no quarterback other than perhaps John Elway would have had a more famous final scene. Instead, the victory, and that single memorable play, in a sense, was the walkoff moment for another Patriots legend, the great Gronk, who retired at age 30 with that last catch left behind as one spectacular final parting gift.
I could watch that play, the perfect distillation of the iconic Brady-Gronk partnership, on an endless loop from now until training camp.
That was not the end for Brady, of course, and that was a good thing, even if this season ended badly for him and the team, with former teammate Logan Ryan’s pick-6 icing the Titans’ 20-13 win in the wild-card round.
He still threw for more than 4,000 yards, fired 24 touchdown passes to just 8 interceptions, and he did it with a supporting cast that wasn’t all that supportive, one made up of too many misfits and not-ready-for-prime-time players, including a group of receivers that probably left him wondering if he was too tough on Joey Galloway back in the day.
He wasn’t his old self, but he wasn’t over the hill either. He needs more help these days, but he can still play.
So consider this a plea: If he does play next season — and he sure sounds like someone who doesn’t intend for the end credits of his career to scroll over an image of Ryan’s interception — it has to be with the Patriots. A free agent for the first time in his career, he’ll have other options, perhaps some that he’ll convince himself are actually appealing. But he should not — he cannot — go elsewhere. Nothing good will come of it.
There isn’t going to be an ideal option for him out there, a ready-to-win scenario like the one his buddy and rival Peyton Manning navigated his way into in 2012 with the Denver Broncos. The Los Angeles Chargers? They don’t even have a fan base. The Las Vegas Raiders? A terrible bet.
The Broncos? Not the worst option, if Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant are the rare young pass-catchers who can get on the same page with him immediately, but not a better option than he’d have by returning to New England, perhaps with some new and improved weaponry at his disposal. (As I wrote earlier this week, Bill Belichick always reloads the season after the Patriots don’t go far.)
As tempting as it might be to try to prove he can win without Belichick, does Brady really want to reinvent himself elsewhere at 43, beginning anew with a different offensive coordinator and new teammates who have no clue about his expectations and don’t share his institutional knowledge?
Further, he has to know there’s risk to his image if he goes somewhere and falters. There’s a long history of this among NFL quarterbacking legends.
Joe Namath, his knees shot and his heart lonely, completed 46.7 percent of his passes in four games with the 1977 Los Angeles Rams as a 34-year-old. The Colts traded 40-year-old Johnny Unitas to the Chargers before the 1973 season for the jackpot of . . . future considerations. The Colts won the trade.
Unitas started the first game of the season, throwing three interceptions and totaling 55 passing yards in a 38-0 loss to the Redskins. He was sacked five times. Unitas was benched in Week 4 — young Dan Fouts played down the stretch for a dismal 2-11-1 Chargers team. When Unitas was deactivated for the season finale, he returned to Baltimore to watch the Colts play their last game of the season.
Even on the rare occasions when one of these situations works out fairly well, history doesn’t necessarily remember it that way. Joe Montana was rather good during his two years with the Chiefs. He was 17-8 as a starter, led them to their first division title in 22 years in 1993, and took them to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the Bills. In 1994, he led the Chiefs to a thrilling “Monday Night Football” victory over Elway and the Broncos, throwing the winning touchdown pass with eight seconds left.
There was still some Montana magic in the KC years, yet he gets lumped in with Namath and Unitas as great quarterbacks who stayed on the stage too long. There’s really only one reason why: It was so disconcerting to see him playing in a uniform other than that of the 49ers that we remember it as a failure, when it was really just weird.
Sports history is pockmarked with legendary players in strange uniforms, and it’s never satisfying. Bobby Orr, Blackhawks . . . Willie Mays, Mets . . . Michael Jordan, Wizards . . . Patrick Ewing, Sonics and Magic . . . Jerry Rice, Seahawks and Raiders . . . Franco Harris, Seahawks . . . Emmitt Smith, Cardinals . . . and my least favorite, Dwight Evans, Orioles.
I’m just grateful Larry Bird didn’t spend a season averaging 11.2 points per game for the Pacers, you know?
If Brady wants to return to the Patriots, I suspect he’ll have to make some concessions on salary, something he has done many times over but does not seem to want to do now, at a point in his career when he’d appreciate some appreciation.
Belichick is brutally unsentimental and unwilling to pay for past performance; it’s not even clear whether he wants Brady back at all. Robert Kraft is a deft negotiator — we all remember the picture of him embracing Colts center Jeff Saturday after he played a crucial role in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement in 2011 — but uniting Brady and Belichick for one last hurrah may test his talents for diplomacy.
Brady has always remembered this anecdote a little differently than Kraft, but I keep thinking about the owner’s perhaps slightly apocryphal story of meeting Brady shortly after he joined the Patriots, and how the scrawny sixth-round pick told the boss with charming cockiness that choosing him was the best decision he would ever make. I bet Kraft would agree that a hello like that deserves to be bookended with a memorable goodbye.
Brady had his chance for the perfect ending in 2018, but decided to play on. If he retires tomorrow, the last action shot of him will be Ryan’s pick-6. There’s no way he wants that. If he plays in 2020, he gets a shot at a more satisfying ending, if not quite the promise of one.
Brady doesn’t entirely control how it will end, but he does have a huge say in where. The best place remains where he’s been all along. Now we wait to learn whether those who will decide such matters agree.