After two months away from the game, Tom Brady has returned to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Did he make the right decision?
On March 12th, 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Tottenham, becoming the all-time leading scorer—according to FIFA—with 807 goals. It was a fantastic performance from a superstar who should’ve already been well past his prime at his age. In the crowd at Old Trafford, Tom Brady looked on as Ronaldo turned back time with a vintage performance that reminded United supporters of over a decade earlier when Ronaldo first played for the club. When he was subbed out shortly after completing the hat-trick, Brady and his two sons got to their feet to join the entire crowd for a standing ovation. After the game, Brady and Ronaldo met on the pitch. In a clip that has since been widely shared, Ronaldo asked if Brady was really retired. Brady responded with silence and a smile.
The next day, Brady returned to the NFL.
Two months ago, Tom Brady rocked the sports world when he announced his retirement at 44. For a man who produced a show called “Tom vs. Time”, it seemed that time had finally won. But after 40 days and 40 nights, simultaneous posts from his Instagram and Twitter accounts announced that Brady was returning to the gridiron for his 23rd NFL season. The return is a huge relief for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that toiled in mediocrity after their 2002 Super Bowl run before Brady came to town. Since then, the Bucs have enjoyed two years of success where Brady won another Super Bowl ring and led the league in passing yards and touchdowns this past year. But for pundits and fans who’ve moved past reposting images about Brady’s return, there’s one question that follows: What on Earth does Tom Brady have left to prove?
There are a few players in NFL history who have finished on top. Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, and Michael Strahan all called it a career after winning a Super Bowl. Other players like Tony Gonzalez, Barry Sanders, and—up until March 13—Tom Brady, retired after excellent statistical seasons.
And then there are those who held on for too long. Brett Favre, who retired three times, stayed on a year too long in Minnesota. After reaching the NFC Championship the year before, he felt he still had enough to get Minnesota over the hump. He was wrong. The Vikings finished with a 6-10 record and late in the season, Favre suffered a brutal hit from behind that sprained his throwing shoulder and led to the end of his consecutive games streak.
So what does Tom Brady stand to gain in his comeback? There’s not much left for Brady to chase. He’s already played in the NFL for 22 seasons, he’s won three MVPs, and he has earned seven championships—more than any NFL franchise.
He’s returning to a team that isn’t as good as his Super Bowl champion squad. For one thing, that 2020 championship team had incredible luck avoiding injury. They were the healthiest team in the NFL, and 21 of 22 Bucs who started the season opener in 2020 played in the team’s Super Bowl LV victory. Tampa Bay re-signed every single starter from the championship team, but the good health was unsustainable, and in 2021, the injury beast reared its head.
The two starting corners, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis, were both placed on Injured Reserve. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. missed four games with a foot injury, and Lavonte David hit IR a couple of weeks before the playoffs. Their star tackle, Tristan Wirfs, missed the Divisional Playoff game due to an ankle injury, and Richard Sherman—the Canton-bound veteran cornerback who was brought in midseason as Tampa Bay’s secondary dealt with injuries—was placed on injured reserve due to an achilles issue.
The team is set to lose nearly half of their starters for the upcoming campaign. Both starting offensive guards, Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet, are already gone. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and safety Jordan Whitehead are all free agents. The Bucs also re-signed Chris Godwin, the star receiver recovering from a torn ACL and MCL, to a three-year contract worth up to $60 million with $40 million guaranteed.
Brady is also returning to a team where he has reportedly had issues with his head coach. According to reports, the relationship between Bruce Arians and Tom Brady soured, mainly due to differences over the offensive gameplan. Arians has refuted this story, but nonetheless it could be a significant rift between coach and quarterback that weakens the team.
So why did he come back? The only semi-relevant comparison is Michael Jordan coming out of retirement the second time, when he joined the Washington Wizards—for whom he was the President of Basketball Operations—in 2001. There was seemingly no reason for his return beyond Jordan’s itch to play in the NBA again. The Wizards never made the playoffs with Jordan on the roster, and although he played well (especially for his age), he wasn’t the same player. Jordan’s legacy wasn’t harmed or helped by his spell with the Wizards. In fact, many fans have completely forgotten about that part of Jordan’s career unless it is brought up to them. Younger fans also have no idea about that era unless they search it out themselves, as even “The Last Dance” documentary series did not mention Jordan’s time with the Wizards.
ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio, however, has argued that Brady never retired in the first place, and was instead using the threat of retirement as leverage against the Buccaneers. How that helped Brady isn’t clear yet; he hasn’t been released or traded and the Bucs have had to scramble to retain major pieces of their core. Even though they have started to dole out the money, it seems likely they will still lose a few pieces.
Whether Brady’s return leads to his second Super Bowl ring with the Bucs remains to be seen. And with Brady’s return, the pressure is ramping up once again. The discord between coach and quarterback may return. Will the expectations be too high? How long can the reunion last? In due time, these questions will be answered. But one thing is clear right now: In Tampa Bay, it’s Brady’s show again.