TAMPA ― Tom Brady has been asked about retirement more times than you can shake a walking stick at.
The 44-year-old typically smiles and says only that he knows his body won’t give out before he gives up football to spend more time with his family.
But as Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against the Eagles approaches, Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen has considered that we may be witnessing the end of the greatest career in NFL history.
“I’m your typical fan,” Christensen said, “and I’ll be thinking, ‘Is this the last time we’re going to see him?’”
Going out on top
If it is the last time Brady laces up his cleats, whether he wins his eighth Super Bowl or not, he will be going out on top after enjoying arguably the best season of his celebrated 22-year career.
Brady won the NFL passing title this season. He threw for the most yards (a career-high 5,316) and touchdowns (43) while setting a league record for completions (485) on 719 attempts, second-most in a season in NFL history.
He did it despite losing three of his biggest targets in a 9-0 loss to the Saints on Dec. 19, when Chris Godwin suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament and Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette left with hamstring injuries. A few weeks later, Antonio Brown was released after refusing to re-enter a game against the Jets.
The Bucs won a franchise-record 13 games, five fewer than the career-best 18-1 record (including three playoff games) Brady achieved with New England in 2007, when the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl 42.
Brady doesn’t get into comparisons. He’s competing only against his own legacy. But there’s no question he has altered your vision of great quarterback play forever.
“I feel like I want to play as a championship-level player,” Brady said. “That’s what I’ve said for a long time. When I’m not able to do that — I said a long time ago, when I suck I’ll retire — but what I really meant was when I’m not capable of leading the team to victory, then someone else has to do the job.
“I feel like I can do that. Obviously, we’ve put ourselves in a decent position. Now we’re in the postseason and we’ve got to take care of a very tough opponent. I just love being out there with the guys. Let’s see if we can beat a really tough Eagles team. This team is going to challenge us, and I’m going to have to play good football.”
Life after football
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Two things will determine when Brady retires. The first is how he feels physically and, by proxy, whether he is still willing to make the sacrifices to maintain his body for peak performance.
After playing the 2020 season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Brady underwent surgery in the offseason. For the first time in 14 years, he didn’t wear a brace. He rushed for 81 yards, his most since 2011, and showed more movement outside of the pocket.
Remarkably, his arm shows no deterioration. His velocity and accuracy are as sharp as they were more than a decade ago.
Longevity is both Brady’s blessing and his curse. He knows, physically, he could probably still play until he’s 50. But quitting means watching the NFL on Sundays knowing he’s better than three fourths of the quarterbacks still playing.
“I imagine not playing,” Brady told Sports Illustrated when he was named 2021 Sportsperson of the Year. “And I imagine watching football on Sundays going, ‘These guys suck. I could do way better than that.’ And knowing in my heart that I could actually still do it.
“If I stopped, I think I’d have to find something else I’m pretty good at. And I don’t think, you know, I’m going to be able to jump into something that has the same amount of excitement.”
Brady is preparing for life after football, but he manages to navigate his business interests with the same preciseness as he dissects a Cover 2 defense.
This week, he unveiled his BRADY clothing line. He has the TB12 health and wellness brand he founded with trainer Alex Guerrero, his 199 (where he was drafted in 2000) production studio, a cryptocurrency firm and recently launched Autograph, already a force in the digital collectibles industry.
He is married to Gisele Bundchen, and they have two children together, Benny (12) and Vivi (9), along with Jack (14), who lives with his mother, Bridget Moynahan, in New York.
“Things change as you get older, and there’s a lot of different responsibilities I have in my life,” Brady said. “My kids and my family is certainly very important, and they made a lot of sacrifice over a long period of time to watch me play. So, you know, I owe it to them, too.”
Leaving a legacy
Brady is signed through the 2022 season. He essentially signed another two-year, $50 million deal last March, but there are few salary-cap ramifications if he walks away. He received $41.075 million in 2021, and $9.025 million will count against the cap in 2022.
What Brady enjoys most about his career now — aside from winning — is helping young players achieve their goals. He frequently pulls teammates aside and helps them with the nuances of the game.
“I just feel like his attention to detail is pinpoint,” receiver Breshad Perriman said. “He wants things done a certain way in terms of certain routes. It helps with that chemistry, and it also makes the receiver better because you know exactly what your quarterback is thinking.”
Brady admits his approach can be brutally direct.
“I think it’s important to put a lot of pressure on guys, because you don’t know how they’re going to react, and if they’re not in there playing you don’t get to see it very often,” he said. “When they get their chance, you don’t want it to be the first time they’re put in a pressurized situation..”
Brady’s ability to adapt to what has been a roulette wheel of receivers has been remarkable.
“He makes them feel welcome,” Christensen said. “He’s so darn humble, he makes them feel comfortable around him. He has a great way of explaining. He has a unique ability to both explain how he sees something looking, and if you don’t do what he expects, not being thrown for a loop and still hitting you (with the ball).”
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who is two years younger than Brady, says he doesn’t know how any quarterback could have a better year than the one Brady just produced, regardless of age.
“If you’re 25, if you’re 26, everyone’s begging and hoping they can have that type of year,” Leftwich said. “ ... (He’s) as special as they come. I don’t know how you do better.”
So Christensen and everybody else should watch Brady during the playoffs as if witnessing a sunset that burns the brightest and most radiant just before it disappears below the horizon.
“He’s arguably having the best year of his career this year,’’ Christensen said. “If he retired this year, he’d be going out on top. In the prime of his career. That would be my thing. But people do. He’d be going out at the prime of his career, because he’s playing great football right now.”
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