It's finally over. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. will no longer play football in the NFL. We knew this day had to come eventually and, even so, it still feels weird to know the 44-year-old really is retiring. There are people out there who just became old enough to drink and have never watched this league without him being a part of it.
Brady actually began dropping hints that he was pondering his career in a different fashion as soon as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round. He mentioned the needs of his kids, how hard it was for wife to watch 300-pound behemoths crashing into him and the importance of this decision being made as a family instead of solely by him. Brady also assessed the Bucs' most recent season with words that were just as noteworthy. He talked about being satisfied after a year that didn't end with another championship.
So now he's gone. Brady has five years to prepare his Hall of Fame speech, and he'll go in fully aware that no quarterback has ever played at such a high level for so long. That much we do know about the end of his 22-year career. As for the questions that will come with his departure? That's what we're about to get into now ...
1) How does this impact Tampa Bay?
It's safe to say the Bucs aren't returning to the Super Bowl any time soon, unless they find an encouraging option at quarterback. Journeyman Blaine Gabbert was Brady's backup, and he's never been the answer for any of the four franchises he played with before joining the Bucs in 2020. Tampa Bay used a second-round pick on Kyle Trask in last year's draft, so you'd think he'd have the best shot at succeeding Brady. The last two NFL offseasons also have given us an incredible amount of movement at the quarterback position. It's not hard to see Tampa Bay gauging its options there as well, especially with big names like Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers in play.
The fact is the Bucs still have a ton of talent on this roster. The real concern is how all that talent works without Brady around. He galvanized this team in his first season, leading it to a Super Bowl win while a pandemic ruined most of the offseason. There were plenty of players who either came to Tampa because of him or took less money to stay there when the possibility of a repeat was very real. There are legitimate questions about whether key offensive players like Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski will choose to be on this roster next year, and how the team will handle the contract of wide receiver Chris Godwin, who tore up his knee while playing on the franchise tag. The Bucs aren't about to fully implode. But they aren't exactly a serious championship contender at the moment.
2) How does this affect the NFC South?
This division would've been more competitive if Sean Payton hadn't decided that he'd had enough of coaching the New Orleans Saints. That decision alone means the Bucs maintain a strong position when it comes to returning to the playoffs. Aside from finding a new head coach, the Saints have to figure out what they're going to do at quarterback. The Carolina Panthers have just as many questions about what's happening under center. You could say the Atlanta Falcons flirted with a postseason spot toward the end of the season, but they barely had a shot.
Even without Brady, the Bucs are still the deepest team in this division. They aren't going to find a quarterback as talented as the future Hall of Famer, but all they have to do is look to the NFC East for validation of what next year could be like for them. The Dallas Cowboys won that division because they had a roster that was simply better than that of anyone else. Tampa Bay will likely be in a similar position.
3) How does this impact the NFC?
If you're the Los Angeles Rams or San Francisco 49ers -- the teams who just faced off in the NFC Championship Game -- your life just became much easier. The same can be said about the Dallas Cowboys, even with all their festering drama. The Green Bay Packers? We'll see what happens with Rodgers. If he really is playing football somewhere else next year, then the Packers definitely aren't going to benefit from Brady's departure. The reality is that the majority of the best young quarterbacks in this league now play in the AFC. That's where you'll find Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. The NFC is filled with a variety of signal-callers who are either going through their own growing pains or struggling to go next-level with their play. Russell Wilson is stuck on a Seattle Seahawks team that became bad in a hurry. There's a trio of quarterbacks who inspired MVP talk this season -- the Rams' Matthew Stafford, the Cowboys' Dak Prescott and Arizona's Kyler Murray -- and then played themselves right out of the conversation. There's that next tier of quarterbacks, guys like San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo (who might not even be in the NFC next year), Minnesota's Kirk Cousins and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. Brady overshadowed all these dudes. If both he and Rodgers are leaving the conference, there are going to be plenty of teams rejoicing about what it means to their own respective futures.
4) Where do we finally stand on the question of who meant more to the Patriots' dynasty?
Bill Belichick has had two years without Brady in New England. He missed the playoffs in the first season and earned a wild-card spot with a rookie quarterback in the second. Brady won a Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa Bay. Enough said. Belichick is the man who discovered Brady and developed him. But Brady's success with the Bucs took his legacy to a place where it's impossible to question what he meant to the head coach. One man is the greatest coach in the history of football. The other is the greatest winner in the history of team sports.
5) Will any quarterback ever threaten Brady's legacy?
Let's be clear here: There isn't a quarterback playing right now who is going to surpass what Brady did over the last 22 years. Along with those seven Super Bowl rings, he holds NFL records for most career completions (7,263), pass attempts (11,317), passing yards (84,520) and touchdown passes (624). Patrick Mahomes is the man most often mentioned as being able to chase down Brady, and even he would have a huge challenge on his hands. At this point, the 26-year-old Mahomes would need to average 4,369 passing yards and 32 touchdowns per season for the next 15 years just to tie Brady's career marks. He'd have to win the Super Bowl every other year during that time to beat Brady on championships. It ain't happening. Mahomes has the talent, as do a lot of other young star quarterbacks. The more salient factors to consider are whether a player possesses the desire to keep grinding well into their 40s, along with the good fortune to avoid major injuries that sap their skills over time. Look at how Ben Roethlisberger was playing in his final season in Pittsburgh, or how limited Peyton Manning was when he finished his career with a Super Bowl 50 win in Denver. Neither man had even reached 40 years old at that point. The greatness of Brady isn't just about the numbers or the rings. It's that his will drove him to a place where he could play this long without ever really declining.