I have thoughts. Many, in fact. No, not on the Red Sox’s farcical, intelligence-insulting Mookie Betts trade (Since when do the Red Sox care about the luxury tax? John Henry’s life is a luxury tax) or Eminem crashing The Oscars. I’m talking about the all-powerful force the NFL orbits around, a solitary star burning brightly at the center of the sport’s solar system. Champion, grizzled veteran, comeback lord, cool customer, polarizing pot stirrer—Tom Brady embodies all that we love and, depending on who you ask, a lot of what we hate about the NFL, the deification of athletes and the general state of celebrity culture in America.
With six Super Bowl rings, three MVP awards and over $200 million in career earnings, Touchdown Tom has checked every conceivable NFL box. To celebrate his many accomplishments, he’s decided to take the league hostage, driving us to the edge of insanity with his endless catalogue of cryptic tweets, defiant Hulu ads and maddening misdirects. Brady knows more than anyone about winning championships but not much about going quietly. There was a Super Bowl in Miami last week but between the shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s passing and the ever-swirling Brady rumors, you’d never know it. At last, Brady’s first free agency is upon us and the 20-year vet seems to be loving every minute of it. Intoxicated by his newfound freedom, Brady is reveling in the rumors, splashing gleefully in the waters of uncertainty while the rest of us search for answers, scouring high and low like children in a high-stakes Easter egg hunt.
But is Touchdown Tom really touchdown gone? The speculation has been rampant. We’ve heard the rumblings of Brady scoping out schools in Nashville, home of his former Patriots teammate and current Titans coach Mike Vrabel (that turned out to be a red herring). The 42-year-old was also seen gabbing with Raiders owner Mark Davis at last month’s Conor McGregor fight in Vegas (tampering much?). And if that wasn’t enough tabloid fodder to keep the lights on at TMZ, have you heard the Chargers—based in Brady’s home state of California—are taking applications for their vacant quarterback position?
That’s just a sampling of what’s out there for TB12. Jameis Winston seems like a good bet for the franchise tag but if Bruce Arians is tired of it raining interceptions in Tampa, would the Bucs give Brady a ring? And with Dak Prescott not giving an inch in contract talks with Dallas (he reportedly snubbed his nose at an extension worth $33 million annually), would Jerry Jones—ever the showman—pivot to a living legend by the name of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady? The Colts don’t seem sold on Jacoby Brissett as a long-term fix and while Brady isn’t that either (the scales are starting to tip back in Father Time’s favor after Tom’s relatively lackluster 2019), working with T.Y. Hilton would be a welcome reprieve after so many years slumming it with Bill Belichick’s endless stable of slot receivers. There’s even hope for New Orleans in the Brady Sweepstakes, pending an unlikely but not out-of-the-question Drew Brees retirement announcement. Along with the aforementioned Brees, fellow Saints Teddy Bridgewater and unabashed vulture Taysom Hill are also headed for the open market.
The point is, Brady could end up anywhere and for many, that’s a jarring hypothetical. It wouldn’t be unprecedented—Joe Montana finished his career in Kansas City while even Michael Jordan overstayed his welcome, limping to the finish line as a lowly Washington Wizard. But seeing Brady elsewhere would still be a shock to the system after all the trophies he’s lifted in Foxboro. It’s not hyperbole to declare New England the greatest football dynasty of all-time and while much of the credit for the Patriots’ longevity belongs to Belichick (Machiavelli in a hooded sweatshirt), an equal amount rests on the shoulders of Brady, the league’s preeminent short-yardage maestro. Brady hasn’t been a downfield shredder since Randy Moss cleaned out his locker at Patriot Place over a decade ago, but as the NFL’s foremost chameleon, new faces and scheme changes haven’t phased the former Wolverine in the slightest. That is until this past season when the Patriots were unceremoniously bounced by the upstart Titans in a Wild Card stunner that many are already pointing to as the end of New England’s long-standing dynasty.
If that was indeed our last glimpse of Brady in Patriots blue and silver, it’s hard to imagine a more anticlimactic end than losing back-to-back home games to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Tannehill, not to mention his final throw was returned for a game-sealing pick-six by Pats alum Logan Ryan. Messy endings are a dime a dozen—Brett Favre bungled his comeback with a dismal farewell season in Minnesota while all of us could have done without the last two installments of The Hangover franchise. It’s a common pitfall of the overly competitive, the fatal flaw of not knowing when to hang it up. When talent fades and unchecked ego is all that’s steering the ship, you better board up the windows and find shelter because a storm is coming.
Which begs the question, is Brady, in his ancient state, still worthy of a $30-million-plus yearly investment? I didn’t pull that number out of thin air—that’s the amount New England is reportedly prepared to spend on its franchise anchor. That’s not unreasonable for a player of Brady’s Hall of Fame stature and could be thought of as something of a peace offering from the Patriots after so many years of paying their ace quarterback below market value.
But that’s still an astronomical sum for a player who, quite frankly, wasn’t very good last year. Brady’s yards per attempt this past season (6.6) was his lowest since 2002 while his completion percentage (60.8) and passer ratings (88 on the dot) were his worst since 2013. We know the Pats’ pass-catching cupboard was bare (his top weapons were a hobbled Julian Edelman and running back James White) and the team’s post-Gronk tight end corps was comprised of a similarly underwhelming group headlined by replacement-level Matt LaCosse and a since-retired Ben Watson. But shouldn’t at least some of the onus for New England’s unusually stagnant 2019 fall on Brady, who looked like a shell of the player who captured MVP honors just two years prior or even last year when he bested Patrick Mahomes in a postseason battle of AFC heavyweights?
Brady can wear magical healing pajamas and munch avocado ice cream until his brain freezes, but he can’t outrun (sorry, I was just laughing at the prospect of Brady out-running literally anyone) Father Time forever. This is called “ageing” and as much as he and the TB12 family would have you believe otherwise, Brady’s physical decline isn’t a distant prospect—it’s happening right before our eyes. Even with his immense resources and tireless commitment to preserving his body, Brady was naïve to think he could play this cat and mouse game forever, defying the laws of nature that all humans, no matter how rich and powerful, must subscribe to. No one, not even the bulletproof Tom Brady, is immune to the pitfalls of age. Which makes Brady an odd fit for just about every team that could possibly want him.
Can we definitely say that this circling-the-drain incarnation of Brady would definitively make the Raiders, Chargers, Titans or even the Colts better football teams? There’s certainly a cash grab element at play for the Raiders and Chargers, who could be looking to capitalize on Brady’s celebrity (and thus earning potential) in an effort to fill their new multi-billion-dollar stadiums. But how practical would it be for Vegas to mothball Derek Carr (whose 2019 numbers mimicked Brady’s) for two years max of a quarterback with almost 10,000 passes on his NFL odometer? Employing Brady as a one or two-year bridge would make some amount of sense for the Bolts, who recently announced their intentions to move on from a similarly past-his-prime Philip Rivers. But we all know winning trumps all in Brady’s universe and the cold, hard truth of the matter is, staying in New England gives him the best chance to do exactly that.
Most have interpreted Brady’s recent attention-getting tactics as mere posturing, warning shots fired at Belichick and Robert Kraft after surrounding the Patriots lifer with one of the worst supporting casts of his New England tenure. NFL Network’s Michael Giardi has confirmed that “weapons,” not dollars or cents, are at the crux of Brady’s unrest. Luckily for the Patriots, there’s an easy fix. The Pats have a malleable $45.6 million in cap space, a figure they can use to lure both Brady and another asset of his choosing. This year’s free-agent crop is flush with pass-catchers ranging from household names like A.J. Green and Amari Cooper to the less-heralded (and much more cost-effective) Robby Anderson. Tight end is a similar embarrassment of riches with Hunter Henry, Greg Olsen and Austin Hooper all open for business. Each of these additions would considerably upgrade the team’s talent pool, potentially paving New England’s path to another deep playoff run. That’s easier said than done with 31 other teams vying for the same players, but if an offensive facelift is what Brady needs to stay a Patriot, expect New England to put on the full-court press.
How about a quick round of devil’s advocate? Belichick, who serves as New England’s de facto GM on top of his head-coaching responsibilities, has never been one to hand out lifetime achievement awards. Emperor Bill isn’t interested in placating a fan base and the next roster choice he makes on the grounds of sentimentality or some underlying sense of loyalty will be his first. If there’s a tough decision to be made on the Brady front, Belichick won’t shy away from making it. With Brady’s career seemingly on borrowed time, the exodus of Belichick’s star pupil—if it happens—may actually be a blessing in disguise for the Patriots. Tannehill may not be “better” than Brady but he’s a reasonable enough facsimile and a heck of a lot younger. Winston, though an eyesore at times, is 26 and threw for the eighth-most passing yards in league history this past season. There are signs Cam Newton’s body is breaking down but wouldn’t it be SO Patriots if he resurrected himself in Foxboro?
I guess this is my longwinded way of saying I haven’t the foggiest idea where Brady will be playing next season or, in his diminished state, if it even matters. But the Brady saga is riveting melodrama and you best believe I’m here for every damn second of it.
Epilogue: Of all the Bump and Runs I’ve written, this one was the hardest, because it’s my last (I even saved it on Word as “Bump and Run—The Last One"). This wasn’t an easy job by any stretch. Sports writing is a cut-throat industry filled with long hours, working nights, weekends, holidays—you name it. Fighting in the trenches for Rotoworld was rarely glamorous—once during an especially hectic night of writing, a handful of chips served as my entire dinner (I’m lying … that happened many times). But I’m still extremely proud of the five years I spent at Rotoworld and will forever be grateful for the way NBC allowed me to achieve my creative vision, indulging my bizarre anecdotes and frequent pop-culture references in a way few others would. That meant everything to me.
And so did you. Whether it was by reading my columns, joining me for a Wednesday night livestream or listening to me cram as many fantasy tidbits into a 15-second Instagram story as humanly possible, you were there every step of the way and I can’t thank you enough for supporting me and giving my work meaning. I can hear them playing me off, so I’ll skip right to the thank you’s: a big thanks to Ed Williams and Brett Vandermark for discovering me all those years ago at FSTAs (I’m living proof that networking does, in fact, work), to my editor Aaron Solomon for his tireless work behind the scenes, a shout-out to both my football (I’ll miss our Sunday Slack shenanigans) and baseball squads, and of course, Hue Jackson for the endless material.