When Tom Brady finally retired -- "for good," he made a point of saying -- in a low-definition video on Wednesday morning, he went out having attempted and completed more passes than any quarterback had in a season in NFL history. At 45, he had not faded away or been dragged across the finish line.
Granted, Brady had struggled more than he had on a field in memory and he had endured a very public divorce just as the season began. After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trounced by the Dallas Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend, Brady took a moment to thank Tampa for welcoming him and the local media for dealing with him respectfully, an allusion to what had been his most difficult and complicated -- and perhaps least fun -- season. Watching him in person that night was bittersweet. Brady, despite his greatness, just could not will himself and the Bucs to a happier ending.
But even as the Buccaneers struggled to win a moribund NFC South, and then were overwhelmed in the playoffs, there was never any question that Brady was their best player and the only reason why they had any chance to be competitive in the final weeks of the season. The near-miss against the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round last season had ultimately convinced Brady to come out of a brief retirement, because he was still among a small handful of quarterbacks who were championship caliber. There was no near-miss this time. Brady was still good enough. His team was not.
That Brady could still play, could still throw, even if he was slightly diminished from his peak, is what makes the quarterback's decision so impactful now. He would have been a free agent this offseason and there would have been suitors -- the Bucs almost certainly among them -- and little doubt that he would have made several teams better, quite possibly good enough to make a serious championship push. Fans from Miami to San Francisco were wondering if he would land with them. Brady's departure is the first domino -- a huge one -- in what will be another offseason of significant QB shuffling.
The Bucs, who will have a new offensive coordinator, now must find a new quarterback, too. They had gone all in during the Brady years and got what they sought: a Super Bowl championship in the 2020 season, Brady's first there. But that means the bill is coming due, and whether it is Kyle Trask or another quarterback who is not yet on the roster, the starter will likely be part of a team in the throes of a rebuild.
The Las Vegas Raiders, who have already made clear that Derek Carr will not be back, are now without a franchise quarterback and without their most enticing option. There will be no reunion between Brady and Josh McDaniels, who shared so much success in New England. That means the Raiders, who are already coming off a disappointing Year 1 under McDaniels, are in the unenviable position of having to find a quarterback who can generate ample excitement and winning potential.
It had always seemed a long shot that Brady would join the San Francisco 49ers, even though they were his hometown team. His children are on the East Coast, and even if Brady had continued to play, it seemed likely he would prioritize proximity to them. Still, the 49ers, with Brady next year, would have been serious Super Bowl contenders, erasing the enormous quarterback questions that now confront Kyle Shanahan and pairing Brady with powerhouse running backs and the league's finest defense. San Francisco will instead probably have Trey Lance and Brock Purdy, who will be coming off a significant elbow injury, competing for the job, while Jimmy Garoppolo finally departs as a free agent. The Niners are so good that they started three different quarterbacks and still made the NFC Championship Game. Brady would have had a good chance to put them over the top.
The Miami Dolphins can finally go forward with Tua Tagovailoa, without the long shadow cast by Brady. Tagovailoa's breakout season in 2022 had all but slammed the door on the possibility of Brady's arrival, but the Dolphins may still stand as the greatest example of how tempting Brady was, even as his career was nearing its end. Team owner Stephen Ross coveted Brady so much that he was suspended for a portion of last season for tampering with the ultimate field general, in an attempt to woo him to Miami while he was still under contract.
The rest of the league may have rolled its eyes at Ross' ham-handedness. But there was little doubt they understood his ardor. Even as Brady was preparing to walk way, plenty of them would have shared it.