In a perfect world — and so much of Tom Brady’s career was as close to perfection as a football player can get — the first retirement would’ve stuck.
He certainly did nothing to enhance his legacy by returning for another season. And, of course, we’ll never know if that regrettable decision cost him his marriage, as well.
But Brady’s farewell year — he announced his retirement again on Wednesday, and this time insisted that he means it — will quickly fade from our collective memories, overwhelmed by the enormity of his accomplishments over an unprecedented career.
The seven Super Bowl titles. The three MVP awards. The five Super Bowl MVP awards. The certain spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The unquestioned legacy as the greatest quarterback ever to toss a pigskin.
And Brady being Brady, even his final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the one he never should’ve come back for at age 45 — was hardly an embarrassment.
Yes, he presided over a team with a losing record for the first time in his 23-year career. (Let that one sink in for a moment. One losing season in more than two decades as an NFL quarterback. Simply amazing.)
Yes, he did get embarrassed in the playoffs after the Bucs snuck in only because a geographical anomaly gifted them a division title they hardly deserved.
But this wasn’t Willie Mays or Joe Namath or Muhammad Ali at the end of their careers, pitiable shells of their former greatness.
Tampa Bay was terrible on offense, but it was hardly Brady’s fault. Playing behind a line that had more leaks than a rickety old garden hose, he broke his own, year-old NFL record for most completions in a season with 490, and eclipsed another league mark with 733 passes thrown.
Only five other times in his career did Brady throw for more yards than this season’s 4,694. A 66.8% completion rate also was among the best he’s ever put up.
He wasn’t at the top of the game anymore, but he wasn’t that far off. NFL.com ranked him No. 11 among the league’s 32 primary starting QBs at the end of the regular season, which seems an appropriate spot.
Brady could’ve gone deep one time, looking to connect on a desperation pass that might’ve given him a shot at a more appropriate ending: an eighth Super Bowl ring. There were some teams that might’ve been interested, perhaps even the San Francisco 49ers.
The team that reached the NFC championship game despite losing three quarterbacks to major injuries certainly has the talent everywhere else to make another run at the Super Bowl.
A one-off with Brady might’ve slowed the development of Trey Lance and Brock Purdy, but it would’ve made the 49ers a clear Super Bowl favorite next season. For good measure, it would’ve given Brady a chance to close his career not far from where he grew up in the Bay Area.
But we’ll never know if such a scenario was ever realistic. With a 50-second video posted to social media on the one-year anniversary of his first retirement, Brady called it a career.
This time, he insisted, it’s gonna stick.
“Good morning guys. I’ll get to the point right away. I’m retiring,” he said, nodding his head slightly. “For good.”
He chided himself a bit for the hoopla that surrounded his 2022 decision, which he reversed 40 days later.
“I know the process was a pretty big deal last time,” Brady said. “So when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first. I won’t be long-winded. You only get one super-emotional retirement essay, and I used mine up last year.”
The saddest part of Brady’s final season was not the results on the field, but what happened away from the gridiron.
In late October, amid tabloid talk that Gisele Bündchen was livid at her husband for going back on his decision to retire, the couple finalized a divorce to their 13-year marriage.
They seem on good terms now.
Bündchen posted a comment to her ex-husband’s video on Instagram that said, “Wishing you only wonderful things in this new chapter of your life.” She tacked on a praying hands emoji. He added pictures of Bündchen and their children to his post.
No need to fret for the G.O.A.T.
Brady has already lined up an extremely lucrative landing for his post-playing career, agreeing last year to a staggering 10-year, $375 million contract to serve as a Fox game analyst.
It will be intriguing to see if he can bring the same brilliance and insight to the broadcast booth, especially when he rarely said anything all that interesting as a player.
Not to mention, his arrival is sure to stir up a bit of drama since Fox’s current lead analyst, Greg Olsen, has quickly gone from stopgap to one of the best of the business.
But never bet against the guy who went from a sixth-round draft pick to the best there’s ever been.
“Thank you guys for allowing me to live my absolute dream,” Brady concluded in his retirement video, his voice quivering. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Not even a final season that didn’t go as planned.
As with all things Brady, it might be the best performance we’ll ever see by a past-their-prime athlete who should’ve stayed retired.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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