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Tom Brady

Tom Brady is messing with the clock, and it’s about to get awkward

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
January 17, 2023 at 22:04
Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers were eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round following a losing season. (John Raoux/AP)
Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers were eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round following a losing season. (John Raoux/AP)

Brady really doesn’t know how to quit. 

The feeble pass, which Tom Brady intended to throw out of bounds, landed softly in the hands of Dallas Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse. It was one strange, punt-like interception. In a trophy-encased career, Brady usually doesn’t let such an awful mistake touch him, but here he was Monday night, overwhelmed and unprotected.

Brady slapped the side of his helmet, looked down and screamed. It was early in the second quarter, and Dallas was just beginning to separate from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys led 6-0, and Brady was responding the way Brady responds, directing a 14-play drive that put his team within five yards of the end zone. That’s when, on second and goal, the disaster occurred. Brady took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff, stepped back and pump-faked as two Cowboys ran after him. He panicked and tossed the football toward the back of the end zone. It didn’t sail out of trouble. It floated right into danger. In a 31-14 playoff loss, Brady and the Buccaneers wouldn’t threaten Dallas again.

Brady really doesn’t know how to quit. He couldn’t on that critical play. And he still isn’t inclined to abandon a gilded football life in which he is now chasing after things he had already caught.

Tom Brady walks off toward ... what? He doesn’t say.

It’s his prerogative. After 23 seasons of historic feats, after retiring for 40 days last offseason and then deciding he has “unfinished business,” Brady has earned the right to exit the game his way. He might have to get used to causing the audience to wince instead of dropping jaws, but there’s nothing wrong with riding the train to the end of the line.

The concern shouldn’t be that Brady will tarnish his legacy. We say that without thinking because, selfishly, we want to remember every icon in perfect form. But Willie Mays didn’t ruin his reputation when he ended his career with the New York Mets. The memories of Michael Jordan’s greatness aren’t diminished because he came out of retirement to play for the Washington Wizards. Jerry Rice ending his career with the Seattle Seahawks is more trivia question than black eye.

In time, when the rough endings are folded into their immense volumes of work, the all-time greats are remembered as they should be. And as painful as it can be to watch, there’s something weirdly reassuring about watching Father Time come for them and realizing the game has passed them by. Transience drives sports; the next big thing is always due to arrive. Sometimes, it helps to see every phase of this cycle.

Of his interception, Brady said: “I didn’t, obviously, get enough on it. It certainly didn’t help our cause.”

Of his future, the 45-year-old said, “It’ll just be one day at a time, truly.”

Reporters wanted to know if this ending felt significant for Brady, who is set to be a free agent.

“It just feels like the end of the season,” he said.

His actions suggest he wants to keep playing but not for Tampa Bay. Before ending his postgame media session, he thanked the media and expressed his love for the Buccaneers. It felt like a goodbye. If the Bucs can’t figure out a way to upgrade the creaky parts of their roster, change might be good for both parties.

The talent surrounding Brady means more than it ever has. Three years ago, he left the New England Patriots after 20 seasons and six Super Bowls, picked a franchise that he thought was a quarterback away and then led Tampa Bay to a championship in his first season. Brady was the superstar the Bucs needed, but they had everything he needed: strong defense, a full complement of receiving options and brilliant offensive minds who thought about the game a little differently than him. Brady and former coach Bruce Arians butted heads during their two seasons together, but the combination worked.

Tampa Bay isn’t the same well-rounded team it was during that Super Bowl run. The offensive line was a mess this season. The Bucs couldn’t — and sometimes wouldn’t — run the ball. Brady couldn’t throw downfield. He still managed to amass 4,694 passing yards, but that was 622 yards less than his NFL-leading 2021 total. His touchdowns dropped from 43 to 25. His passer rating dipped from 102.1 to 90.7.

On Monday, against the Cowboys’ aggressive defense and merciless pass rush, Brady produced one of the most deceptive 300-yard games you’ll see. He attempted a career-high 66 passes. He completed just 35 of them. He finished with 351 yards and two touchdowns, but the offense did most of the damage after Dallas took a 24-0 lead. It would be insulting to other one-dimensional offenses to call Tampa Bay, which ran the ball only 12 times, one-dimensional. Much like during the regular season, the Buccaneers could rely on just half of a dimension from their passing game: throw short and pray.

“It’s hard to beat good teams like that,” Brady said.

Before the interception, Brady hadn’t committed a red-zone turnover since 2019. In that span, he had attempted 410 passes, thrown for 86 touchdowns and used his old-man trot to run for seven scores. But he looked like a skittish rookie at the moment when his team was desperate for him to flash his seven-ring greatness.

When pondering Brady, we need to redefine what “done” means in professional sports. He’s messing with the clock, but even at his advanced age, Brady is unlikely to lose it all next season if he returns. The majority of what he has left may be safe for two more seasons. He still has a good arm. He can still be accurate. But as this season emphasized, all the conditions must be right.

He’s a pick-and-choose star now. He needs to economize his excellence. He can be special, just not with the same regularity as before. That has been the case since he arrived in Tampa after a lackluster final season with the Patriots. He hasn’t managed to do amazing things with the Bucs because he turned back the clock. They complemented him properly, and he thrived. In any professional sport, you can’t ask a post-prime player to carry a team, not if you’re trying to win big. To maximize aging talent, the table must be set correctly.

Tampa Bay asked Brady to cover too many flaws this season. It was too heavy of a burden, especially with his high-profile personal life creating headlines. He didn’t play with much joy. For the first time, he endured a losing season.

Now, Brady has a familiar decision to make. Keep playing? And where? Regardless of his choice, his Hall of Fame bust will look the same. But the longer this awkward farewell continues, unfinished business will start to seem an awful lot like loitering.

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