After 20 seasons, six NFL championships, nine Super Bowl appearances, three MVPs, 17 division titles, 14 Pro Bowl appearances and untold other individual accolades, the greatest of all time should retire.
During his post-game presser following Saturday night’s home wild-card loss to Tennessee, the Patriots' Tom Brady dismissed the idea of retirement, or at least branded it highly unlikely, yet admitted he wasn’t entirely sure what his immediate future holds. All anyone knows for now is that his contract will void once the new league year begins in March, thus presumably touching off the biggest free-agent sweepstakes the league has seen -- at least one featuring a 42-year-old quarterback.
If Brady is willing to play until he literally must be dragged from the field, some team undoubtedly will accommodate him. And it’s reasonable to figure he could physically withstand playing another year, or maybe even two. He has maintained that his goal is to play until he's 45, and he’ll be 43 at the start of the 2020 season. But for the first time in his extended run in the NFL, it’s evident that returns are diminishing.
Brady's 2019 stats were his worst in over a decade, and it was the first year he didn’t make the Pro Bowl since 2008 -- the season he was knocked out for the season in Week 1 with a knee injury. There were deficiencies in the Patriots' offense beyond Brady in 2019, but for once it was clear the quarterback was part of the problem as well.
When to walk away is a well-worn argument in sports for which there is no correct answer. For every Andrew Luck, an athlete with immense talent who decides the rigors of sport aren't worth sacrificing other aspects of a rich life, there’s someone like Brady, for whom football is the alpha and the omega. Both are faithful to their own desires, and who are we to tell them they’re wrong? After all, they’ve put their bodies on the line for our entertainment.
Still, there are compelling reasons for Brady to leave now. For starters, there has been public friction between he and his wife about his continued playing. In 2017, months after a spat in the media with her husband about his unwillingness to retire, Gisele Bundchen claimed that Brady suffered a concussion the season before that had not been reported and expressed concern about the toll further head injuries would take on him. The NFL and the NFLPA disputed the claim about that particular concussion, yet for all we know about the NFL’s checkered past of obscuring head injuries, it’s hard to completely dismiss that out of hand. Besides, whether her specific allegations were true or not, it showed a willingness on the part of Gisele to apply public pressure to her husband to consider leaving football.
There’s also the matter of Brady’s temperament. An obsessive competitor, he can often be spotted screaming on the field and on the sidelines when the offense isn’t running smoothly. Now that his abilities are on the wane, it’s difficult to see him deriving anywhere near as much satisfaction from playing if his performance won’t be what he wants it to be.
It’s entirely possible that Brady, if he does return for Year 21, will be back in New England, the only home he’s known in his pro career. There was no hint of bitterness toward the organization in his presser Saturday. “I love the Patriots. It's the greatest organization,” he told reporters. “Playing for Mr. [Robert] Kraft all these years, and for Coach Belichick, there's nobody who's had a better career, I would say, than me -- just being with them. So I'm very blessed.”
The Patriots are not sentimentalists, however. One of the hallmarks of the Belichick era has been the ruthless tendency, even by NFL standards, to cut loose players once their peak has passed. If anyone could be the exception, it’s Brady, and with no clear successor waiting in the wings, the 2020 season could be a nightmare for New England if Touchdown Tom retires or signs elsewhere. Then again, a tactical mind like Belichick might be willing to bite the bullet on one bad season if it sets him up for another contending run in 2021, rather than pour everything into a so-so year in 2020. The AFC East is looking like it’s no longer a gimme. The Bills are ascendant, and with all the resources the Dolphins have to play with in the offseason, they could be considerably better than the team that beat the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 17.
On NBC’s broadcast of the Seahawks-Eagles game on Sunday, Cris Collinsworth speculated that Brady would end up in Los Angeles playing for the Chargers next season. By no means is he alone in that guess, and it’s a viable enough scenario. Chargers GM Tom Telesco said last week that every position on the roster is up for evaluation, including QB. Longtime L.A. starter Philip Rivers, who is coming off a rocky 2019 of his own, is 38. The Chargers, along with the Rams, are moving into their new shared stadium in Inglewood next season, and will be doing whatever possible to drum up interest in ticket sales beyond the novelty of new digs.
But is that really an alluring twilight for Brady’s career? Playing for a team that finished 5-11 in 2019 with a quarterback whose passer rating was actually better than Brady’s? Reduced to a big-name attraction to sell tickets for a team that is second banana in its own market? It conjures memories of another quarterback who limped away from the sport after a run of unquestioned greatness. In 1973, Johnny Unitas left the Baltimore Colts after 17 years to play for the Chargers. That season for Johnny U, his last in the NFL, ended up being a rather pathetic affair.
Forty-three-year-old Brady has a little more left in the tank than 40-year-old Johnny U did at that point, though you can mostly chalk that up to advances in player conditioning and rules to protect quarterbacks. The result, though, would more or less be the same: a legend waging a losing battle against time.