Analysis

Tom Brady's unretirement stirring but not surprising; Vikings know Kirk Cousins is better than QB limbo

Tom Brady never seemed fully convinced he was retiring, even when he was retiring. He bristled when word leaked that he was preparing to go before he was ready to announce it. There was no last, lingering look around as he walked off the field at Raymond James Stadium following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Divisional Round loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Brady's abrupt decision as the 2021 season closed out was all the more curious because Brady played last season at such a high level that he finished second in the league's Most Valuable Player voting.

Forty days was all it took for Brady to realize that whatever had motivated him to retire -- reports of irritation with Bucs coach Bruce Arians were most interesting -- was not as powerful as his will to play on. It always seemed odd that Brady would leave the game before he had begun to decline, which is what gave rise to speculation that if Brady were to return, it would be to try to play elsewhere. In the end, Brady's competitiveness overwhelmed whatever concerns he had about logging a 23rd season. Somewhat amusingly, Brady, who has won seven Super Bowls, concluded his return announcement on social media by saying he had "unfinished business" in Tampa Bay. It's not hard to figure out what he means: Brady thinks he can still snag another ring. He is not wrong. And Arians is on board.

"Tom Brady loves to play football as much as anyone I have ever been around," the 69-year-old coach said in a statement released by the Bucs on Sunday. "As Tom said, his place right now is on the football field. He is still playing at a championship level and was as productive as anyone in the league last season. We are ecstatic that he decided to continue playing and working toward winning another championship."

The impact of Brady's change of heart is obviously enormous. The NFC South, which appeared wide open before Brady's announcement, now has a heavy favorite in Tampa Bay. The pursuit of Deshaun Watson by the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers becomes even more fascinating. If one of those teams trades for Watson, they are the division rival that will likely give the Buccaneers, who won the NFC South by four games last season, their steepest competition. Tampa general manager Jason Licht, who spent much of the NFL Scouting Combine talking about all the free agents the Bucs hoped to keep, certainly has a an easier job now.

"We are thrilled that Tom has decided to come back this season," Licht said. "We said we would leave all options open for him should he reconsider his retirement and today's announcement is something we have been preparing for in recent days. Bruce and I have had plenty of conversations with Tom recently that led us to believe there was a realistic chance he would want to come back. Tom is the greatest quarterback of all time who is still playing at an elite level. With this decision now made, we will continue to move forward with our offseason plans to reload this roster for another championship run."

The Bucs will not be able to keep the entire starting lineup together, as they did after winning Super Bowl LV. But playing with Brady is a powerful lure for free agents, and it is worth watching to see how players who will have a healthy market -- center Ryan Jensen among them -- weigh the chance to pursue another Lombardi Trophy with Brady versus offers from other teams. (UPDATE: Jensen agreed to a three-year deal, $39 million to stay in Tampa.)

The NFL is undeniably better with Brady playing, but he did not say Sunday evening how much longer the league will have him. He has long said he wanted to play until he was 45, which he will turn early in training camp this summer. Maybe the 2022 campaign will be end. But two years ago at this time, Brady left New England to start again in Tampa Bay after a difficult final season with the Patriots. He looked much closer to being finished then than he does now. And now the renaissance with the Bucs continues.

Vikings prefer Cousins to the great unknown

And this is how the other half -- the teams that don't have the likes of Tom Brady and his very small and elite company -- live: Minnesota, which has recorded two losing seasons in a row and has made the playoffs just once during Kirk Cousins' four seasons as Vikings starting quarterback, gave Cousins a one-year, $35 million fully guaranteed extension to keep him under contract through 2023.

The Vikings needed cap relief, which necessitated the move, but the end result is that Cousins gets a raise to $40 million in 2022 and will receive $55 million by next March, along with a no-trade clause. Cousins had been the subject of trade speculation and that -- in addition to the contract extension -- is a reflection of the painful truth: Teams need quarterbacks and there are not nearly enough better-than-average ones to go around.

Cousins threw for 33 touchdowns against seven interceptions last season, and new head coach Kevin O'Connell has said he is looking forward to working with Cousins. The Vikings have, arguably, underachieved with Cousins, whose record in Minnesota is 33-29-1. But keeping a good starter who is a known quantity is far more preferable than joining so many other teams who enter free agency in the quarterback wilderness.

Cowboys bank on Gallup

Dallas' decision to trade Amari Cooper to Cleveland signaled the ascension of Michael Gallup. And on Sunday, Gallup's rise was completed with a new contract for five years at an average of $12.5 million per season.

Gallup, who just turned 26, is coming off a torn ACL and his availability for the start of the '22 season is in doubt. He is second to Cooper in receptions (160), receiving yards (2,395) and receiving touchdowns (13) with the Cowboys since 2019.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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