NFL

Tom Brady is retired, but teams will still call him

Tom Brady popped up in Sean Payton’s “goodbye” news conference with the New Orleans Saints, and you probably didn’t recognize it.

Payton was talking about the difficulty of the 2021 season and trying to survive the retirement of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees — which included the juggling of three quarterbacks — when he dropped a nugget nobody expected. When things went south with Jameis Winston’s torn ACL and New Orleans was troubleshooting how to save a potential playoff season, Payton picked up a phone and dialed a familiar number.

“I did call [Brees] during the season and we discussed him coming back,” Payton admitted.

Tom Brady (12) has now joiined Drew Brees in retirement. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There was scuttlebutt during the season that Payton had reached out to Brees, but nobody was admitting as much on the record. At least not until Payton’s news conference to step down as Saints head coach. Not that it was surprising. 

Brees retired in good shape and with better numbers than most realize. Sure, his arm looked like it was failing him, but he was still capable of winning with an offense streamlined through other players. The season’s outcome also suggests Payton was right to make the call: The Saints got edged from the playoffs in a tiebreaker despite the quarterback spot being a monumental mess. Things very likely would have gone differently with another year of good-but-not-his-best Brees.

There’s a slice of Tom Brady’s future to be found inside that story.

Why NFL teams will be reaching out to Tom Brady despite retirement 

Make no mistake, Brady is going to get that phone call. And not just because some team is desperate or hard-up for a quarterback, either. Instead, it’s because Brady is leaving the NFL after a season that would be an absolute pinnacle performance for any Hall of Fame quarterback in history. A year that put him in a race for another MVP with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and basically nobody else, thanks to an absurd 5,316 passing yards, 43 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions (with a few of those being the fault of his receivers, no less).

This isn’t Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers dragging themselves to a merciful end. It’s not Brees losing his downfield passing game or Peyton Manning retiring with numb fingertips and a noodle arm. It’s not Andrew Luck’s body and brain telling him it’s time to walk away while he still can. What Brady is doing here is a self-motivated break from the game rather than a total physical breakdown inside it. And that’s definitely going to mean something to NFL teams in the next few years, particularly the ones that see themselves as extremely close to a championship, but needing one magical QB leader to bring it all together.

Basically, a team as optimistic as the Buccaneers were in the 2020 offseason — when even they underestimated how quickly Brady could make a championship difference.

None of this is to suggest that Brady isn’t committed to his retirement. For all intents and purposes, this feels permanent, even with the whole back-and-forth in late January about whether or not he’d actually made a decision. No, this feels like an act of conviction by a man who wants to spend more time with his family and who also recognizes that any NFL challenges now are merely an act of repetition. His seven Super Bowl wins and nine Super Bowl appearances are more than any other player in history and he managed to seize titles with two different franchises. He leads all quarterbacks by a wide margin when it comes to the Holy Trinity of wins (243), passing yards (84,520) and passing touchdowns (624). He also has more Super Bowl MVPs (five) than anyone, along with three regular-season MVPs, 15 Pro Bowl nods and six All-Pro teams to his name.

Add all that up and there’s essentially no reason to keep pressing on. That’s how we finally arrive at retirement at age 44, despite it appearing clearly that Brady might have been able to play at a high level for several more seasons.

But there’s a funny thing about the NFL and top-tier quarterbacks. Even when the players want to let go, the teams don’t suddenly react as if there’s a “Do Not Disturb” tag on the rest of their lives. Instead, coaches, general managers and even franchise owners tend to come sniffing around. And you can bet, there are plenty of those types who have been affiliated with Brady in some capacity over the years who will keep him in mind regardless of whether they are in power with a team that makes sense. Whether it’s Josh McDaniels with the Las Vegas Raiders, Brian Daboll with the New York Giants, Mike Vrabel with the Tennessee Titans or any others who might be incline to poke around.

Tony Romo’s interesting Michael Jordan/Tom Brady comparison

The ultimate question won’t be whether Brady is asked, but whether a year (or two or three) away does something to his psyche. Michael Jordan’s relentless need for competitive battle brought him back to the table twice. Everything about Brady’s 22 seasons suggests he’s cut from the same cloth. As much as he says he loves his family and is ready to transition to the rest of his life, the simple fact remains that even he doesn’t know what it’s going to feel like when the NFL train boards and leaves the station without him next fall.

Consider what Tony Romo told the “CBS Mornings” show prior to Brady announcing his retirement.

“It reminds me of Michael Jordan,” Romo said. “When Michael Jordan retired after the first three championships, it was because he’s like, ‘What else do I have to prove?’ Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird] didn’t win three in a row.’ … At the end of it, I actually think sneakily, there’s a chance Tom Brady retires and may, I’m just saying, could come back in two years. This is just crazy. But he’s like a bionic man. If he is [retiring], well, he’s not hurt. He’s still playing great. He may need to refresh like Jordan and go two years away, and maybe start another challenge. Because otherwise, there’s nothing left to prove.”

Romo is right when he says it’s crazy. Because that does sound a little crazy. But is it crazier than Tom Brady getting drafted in the sixth round and becoming the greatest player in NFL history? Is it crazier than him winning seven Super Bowls? Is it crazier than him leaving the familiar cradle of the New England Patriots and winning another ring the next year — in Tampa Bay, of all places? And is it any crazier than his finale, when he posted one of the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history at the age of 44?

When you look at Brady’s comeback potential with everything else he has accomplished as a backdrop, it’s really not that crazy at all. The question isn’t whether he’d have an opportunity to do it. The question is whether he would want to.

In the wake of this retirement, that’s the story that begins today.

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