Sometimes, they miss their cue. The light will be gone, the townspeople will have moved on, and the hero will blow his final ride into the sunset.
Not Tom Brady. Not the most successful, proficient, leading-man quarterback the NFL has ever known.
Brady called it quits with a simple but elegant post on social media early Wednesday morning, and it felt absolutely right. Like any great rock star, he left us hoping for one more song.
He didn’t get a final shower of confetti and champagne, but he is leaving with an unmatched legacy for success. Twenty-one seasons as a starter in the NFL, and 20 seasons in the playoffs. He has more Super Bowl rings than any one of the NFL’s 32 teams, and there might not be a more remarkable stat.
And now that his career is finished, a lifetime of moments and memories belong to the world. Everyone will have their own recollection of a Super Bowl, a comeback or a simple dimpled grin.
But around here, we’ll have something more. We’ll have the pleasure of knowing Tampa Bay played a small, but significant, role in the shaping of a legend. New England, naturally, is the star of the production but there will always be a wink, a nod, an acknowledgement of Tampa Bay’s contribution.
We gave Brady his second act. We allowed him to get away from the stuffy confines of Bill Belichick-ville and prove his success was not dependent on one coach or one system.
We gave him the stage for an Elvis-like coda. Not pudgy, bejeweled, Vegas Elvis but the lean, black leather, TV special Elvis. That’s who Brady was for three years in Tampa Bay. He was the market’s most famous resident, and our best connection to cool.
He showed up in the midst of 12 consecutive seasons of disappointment in Tampa Bay, and he miraculously delivered us to the promised land in a matter of months.
The fact that it ended with an 8-9 regular season and a playoff beatdown will soon be shoved to the farthest reaches of our collective consciousness. Instead, this will be the place where Brady won his final Super Bowl. The place he became the NFL’s all-time leading passer, and where he let his goofy side occasionally escape.
It’s also the place where he finally realized his limitations.
Brady, at 45, is still a quality NFL quarterback. Maybe, incredibly, an elite quarterback. That is evident as fan bases from San Francisco to Charlotte have talked excitedly about pursuing him in 2023.
But he is not the same quarterback he was even a few years ago. His lack of mobility requires either an impenetrable offensive line or a specialized game plan, and Tampa Bay had neither last season.
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The evidence suggests Brady knew that when he retired exactly one year ago, while apparently trying to leverage a trade to Miami or elsewhere. When the Bucs made it clear that wasn’t happening, he came back for a flawed, frustrating season that still ended with a division championship.
And, along the way, Brady got a taste of what life is like for mortal quarterbacks, and he didn’t like it one damn bit. He might have been able to find a better situation elsewhere in 2023, but the possibility of another losing record was a risk too real to seriously ponder.
There will be those who say Brady took it too far. That he should have retired after the Bucs beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium. That last season cost him his marriage and a stunning streak of winning seasons. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not our place to judge.
Brady had long talked about playing into his mid-40s, and he pulled it off even if there were more blemishes than he might have expected.
He did not embarrass himself. He was not shown the door. If 2023 wasn’t the happily-ever-after ending he was seeking, it at least convinced Brady that he was not stepping away too soon.
And now his career belongs to the ages. Was he as physically gifted as John Elway? No. Did he change the position of quarterback the way Johnny Unitas once did? No. Was he as accurate, as mobile, as cerebral as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Otto Graham or any other quarterback from your memories or the record books? Those are arguments for social media and bar stools.
Here’s what is certain:
Nobody won the way Brady won. That goes for the regular season and the playoffs, too. And nobody was as committed to winning as Brady. Say what you want about his robotic approach to life and health, but the man was as competitive as any athlete who ever put on a pair of sneakers.
That’s what we should be celebrating today. The idea that a slow, skinny college kid who was ignored for five rounds and the first 198 picks in the 2000 NFL draft could eventually will himself to the top of the football world through sheer determination and confidence.
That’s the story hopeful parents should tell their children, whether they’re playing football or playing piano. Whether they’re applying for med school or volunteering for a service.
There was nothing obviously special about Thomas Edward Patrick Brady until he decided to make the commitment to be the best quarterback the world ever saw.
He eventually pulled it off, and we were fortunate enough to be witnesses for the final act.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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