Because there’s nothing we cannot imagine when it comes to Tom Brady, allow us to place this hypothetical on the table as we digest the news that he will no longer be home on the couch in 2022: What if this is nowhere close to the end? What if it’s not only unlikely, but improbable that he ends a storied career with the Buccaneers? What if, after 40 days of thought away from rampant speculation, his brian got a chance to breathe, and in that space of calm, formulated some new goals and ideas that don’t involve Bruce Arians and the balmy, Southeast?
When Brady announced his unretirement, a full Lenten season after he first decided to walk away, there were jokes about his realizing what it’s like to care for three kids full time, or perhaps a desire to beat Brett Favre’s first non-retirement, which Brady did by a full three months. Maybe he confronted the monotonous rhythm of life without football and turned the other way in a full-fledged sprint.
It’s not our place to dig inside Brady’s head. He only said in a social media post that he realized his place was still on the field. There are aspects of his life and internal motivations we are never going to understand, and perhaps Brady doesn’t quite understand them now either. But one of them could very easily be that he believes there is another level he can reach, and that there is someone else out there who can get him there.
From an academic perspective, it gives us a chance to study post-greatness in this year, or two years, or five years if Brady continues to play in the NFL. Brady said that he had “unfinished business” and though we have no earthly idea what that could possibly be at this point, his motivations may soon be clear when, in the days or weeks or months to come, we start hearing about trades and tracking the tail number on all Rob Gronkowski’s flights.
Maybe his unfinished business is challenging the idea that we can place an age range on “finished” in the first place, or some other kind of health-related vaguary. But maybe his unfinished business is winning a Super Bowl with another team he’s always wanted to play for. With another coach he’s always secretly admired. With another wide receiver he’s always wanted to throw to.
Brady already beat the NFL. He solved the puzzle. Imagine a video game in which all worlds and side missions are complete—in which the computer has nothing to offer but a firm handshake and a perpetual, cool breeze absent any formidable competition remaining in its central processing unit. He subtly middle-fingered every single person who has second-guessed him from the back end of the 2000 draft to his non-Patriots championship during a pandemic year.
To us, there is nothing left to accomplish. But none of us have a fascination with the human body and brain and what their limitations are like Brady. He has all resources imaginable at his disposal, and you’d think he could easily replace the dopamine hit of taking a football snap by sitting in a Formula 1 car or speed boating on some forbidden waters that the lay person wouldn’t know exist. He has plenty of friends. He could lead a team as a coach. He could own a team.
This route is far more valuable to us, though. We have gotten used to the typical athlete lifecycle, which, even for the best of players, follows a similar path. There is a retirement. There is a quiet period of adjustment. There is a reprisal of appreciation leading up to some kind of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame and then more quiet. There is, undoubtedly, a kind of death there. A burial of the person we once knew, which all athletes experience the moment their purpose in life changes so dramatically.
Brady understands that he still has something significant to offer, and it would be hard to imagine that he made this decision with the status quo in mind. There had to be something about the Buccaneers’ setup that helped convince him to walk away. There was something about football that brought him back. How do those two converging thoughts work themselves out?
Beyond his on-field accomplishments, what Brady did in Tampa Bay was to prove how invaluable he is in an indisputable kind of way. Yes, he can get a football out of his hands quickly and accurately. But he is also his own offensive coordinator, brilliantly running a system that he clearly helped develop in New England and tailored to his own strengths. He doesn’t command a top-10 quarterback salary, and he lifts nearly every person he comes into contact with from a competitive standpoint. He is a wind-up doll a franchise can acquire and guarantee itself a 10-win season—at worst. How valuable is that as we approach another quarterback crisis with no options in the draft to replenish the field?
Any team that was hesitant about acquiring him when he left New England, believing that his best traits were a result of Bill Belichick and not Brady, now understands how foolish that belief was. As wild as it sounds, there are probably double the number of teams that would be interested in acquiring Brady going into his age-45 season as there were back in 2020. It’s hard to believe he doesn’t know that.
And so, we can sit here and enjoy being surprised that Brady decided to tie his cleats back on. But we’re offering you a chance to get ahead. We may not have seen anything yet.
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