TAMPA — The end of the season came abruptly for the Bucs.
The finality was sinking in after Monday night’s 31-14 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC wild-card game when Tom Brady walked off the field at Raymond James Stadium and raised his ballcap to fans. He leaned over to hug and kiss his mother, Galynn, and father, Tom Sr., who were uncharacteristically waiting just outside the tunnel in the south end zone.
Brady’s parents walked out holding hands, his mom biting her lip and fighting back tears. In the locker room, Brady’s No. 12 game-worn jersey was secured for safe keeping.
In that moment, and others that followed shortly afterward, you had to wonder if this was not just the closing act of a frustrating year but the conclusion of Brady’s remarkable 23-year career.
Brady, who briefly retired last Feb. 1 before returning to the Bucs 40 days later, didn’t want to discuss his future.
“It’s just been a lot of focus on this game,” Brady said. “It will just be one day at a time. Truly.”
Brady is 45. He was just outplayed by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who passed for 305 yards and four touchdowns while running for another score.
The Bucs offense struggled in a way that was emblematic of their frustrating season.
Tampa Bay couldn’t run the football, attempting only 12 rushes for 52 yards. The Bucs fell into a 24-0 hole and that was pretty much that except for some pride and persistence by Brady at the end of the game.
The momentum was lost when Brady threw his first red-zone interception in three seasons with the Bucs on second and goal at the Dallas 5-yard line early in the second quarter.
“I was trying to throw to Chris (Godwin) and the other guys were blocked in,” Brady said. “I was trying to throw it out (of bounds) and didn’t obviously get enough on it.”
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After that, the Bucs defense allowed the Cowboys to compete touchdown drives of 80, 91, 86, and 66 yards, chewing up huge chunks of clock in the process. Two of Prescott’s touchdown passes went to tight end Dalton Schultz, who was left open on the plays. Another strike went to CeeDee Lamb, who was completely uncovered.
“I thought we made our own blunders well enough to help them along,” coach Todd Bowles said. “But (the Cowboys) deserve all the credit.
“We busted a few things, we missed some tackles and we didn’t play well defensively.”
Brady didn’t seem completely surprised by the outcome. He was hopeful that the return of center Ryan Jensen, who spent the regular season on injured reserve after tearing three knee ligaments on the second day of training camp, would give the offense a lift.
“Just super proud of him and all that he’s gone through this year,” Brady said of Jensen. “That was a tough injury ... and (he) really committed himself the last six to eight weeks to prepare himself to play and did it. Says a lot about who he is.”
In the end, the Bucs offense was the same sputtering unit that fell behind in most games.
“They played good defensively and put a lot of pressure on us and we just couldn’t make a lot of plays,” Brady said. “It was typical of the way we played all year and just inefficient in the passing game and not very good in the run game so it’s hard to beat a good team like that.”
After the game, Bucs players spoke reverently about Brady, who brought them a Super Bowl 55 championship and two NFC South titles.
Tight end Cameron Brate was still in uniform 35 minutes after the game. He potentially caught the last touchdown pass from Brady and saved the football.
“Maybe my last touchdown, too,” Brate said.
The Cowboys are on their way to play the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday. Bucs players will be meeting Tuesday morning, undergoing exit meetings and cleaning out their lockers.
Also, start your Brady watch.
He is bound to have options if he decides to play. Unlike last year, Brady is a free agent and already teams such as the Raiders are lining up to court him. There is speculation he could land in Miami or Tennessee or San Francisco or New York. The Bucs have made no secret they would like him to return in 2023.
Brady said he didn’t want to think about all the choices ahead of him.
“I’m going to go home and ... sleep as good as I can tonight,” Brady said.
As his news conference was wrapping up, Brady interrupted the questioning to make a statement to the assembled media.
“Just feels like the end of the season,” he said. “I just want to say thank you guys for everything you did. I really appreciate all your effort. I know it’s hard for you guys, too. It’s hard for players to make it through and you guys got a tough job and I appreciate all you guys do to cover us and everyone who watches are big fans of the sport and were very grateful for everyone’s support. ...
“I love this organization, it’s a great place to be and thank you everybody for welcoming me. All you regulars. Just very grateful for the respect and I hope I gave the same thing back to you.”
Whether that was farewell for now or goodbye for good, only Brady knows for sure.
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