The Football-Sized Clues That Tom Brady Was Never Really Retired

It took less than a week of Tom Brady being retired for it to seem very possible that Tom Brady probably wasn’t retired.

Six days after he revealed that he was calling it quits, he appeared on his “Let’s Go!” podcast, and he wasn’t exactly subtle about his decision not being final.

Brady ended his so-called retirement Sunday night when he wrote on social media that he would return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his 23rd season in the National Football League. He appeared to be retired for a grand total of 41 days from his Feb. 1 announcement and his March 13 reversal.

It seemed like one of the most severe cases of sports-fueled whiplash in recent memory. The greatest NFL player ever retired. Then he unretired. The whims of one guy’s career outlook transformed an entire industry in one month and then completely transformed it again barely a month later.

Yet there were football-sized breadcrumbs that this moment was coming, and even the Buccaneers didn’t sound particularly surprised.

“We said we would leave all options open for him should he reconsider his retirement and today’s announcement is something we have been preparing for in recent days,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said in a statement Sunday.

One way to understand the bizarre twists of this Brady drama is through a 300-pound man named Ali Marpet. There are many unusual things about Marpet, including that he went to Hobart, a small liberal-arts college, and became a star offensive lineman in the NFL. Another is that Marpet, 28 years old, recently retired even though he could have made tens of millions more by playing on.

When Marpet announced his retirement after playing seven years for the Buccaneers, it didn’t take long for the club to act. He revealed his decision on Feb. 27. Tampa Bay placed him on the list for retired players on March 9.

Brady had made his retirement public weeks earlier. After days of reports, speculation and tributes he wrote on Instagram on Feb. 1 that he “always believed the sport of football is an ‘all in’ proposition—if a 100% competitive commitment isn’t there, you won’t succeed.”

“This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore,” he wrote.

Yet unlike Marpet, the Buccaneers never placed Brady on the list for retired players.

One explanation for that was purely practical. Because of the NFL’s abstruse contracts and salary cap rules, the Buccaneers could defer some of the salary-cap hit from Brady’s contract by waiting until June to place him on the list.

But there was another potential reason: that Brady wasn’t really retired.

In the days and weeks after Brady appeared to walk off into the sunset, Brady himself was the main reason there was good reason to doubt his own words. While at times he backed up his choice—”I feel very good about my decision,” he said on the Feb. 7 podcast appearance—he also equivocated when he said “never say never.”

“I try to make the best possible decision I can in the moment, which I did this last week,” he said then.

A week later, Brady went on the podcast again and sounded pleased with his decision. He also didn’t quite make it sound like that decision was final.

“I’m super content and happy with how I feel in my decision,” he said on the Feb. 14 show. “All you can do is take it day by day.”

By early March, he had blown the door completely wide open. After previously indicating that his decision was about spending more time with his family, he appeared on a radio show and sounded like someone who felt accomplished in that mission. “I’ve done that for the last five weeks,” he said according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Looking forward to some golf in the next few days and some more family time, and then we’ll figure out where we go from there,” Brady added.

Throughout all of this, the football world didn’t stand still. While Brady, who won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before adding a seventh with the Buccaneers, hawked clothes and other products on social media, football’s offseason began.

At the NFL scouting combine on March 1, Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians made a couple of things clear. The first was that the team was fully prepared for the possibility that Brady could return any day.

“That door is never closed,” he said. “Whenever Tom wants back, he’s back.”

The second was that Arians wasn’t entertaining the possibility of Brady coming back and playing for another franchise. When Arians was asked if he would consider letting Brady go to another team, his answer was succinct. “Nope,” Arians said. “It’s bad business.”

Rumors of Brady’s potential desire to play elsewhere have been as popular as Brady’s highlight reels. He has often been connected to the San Francisco 49ers, his hometown team from going up. He has also been linked with the Dolphins, especially after former Miami coach Brian Flores’s lawsuit described an alleged meeting in 2020 between team owner Stephen Ross and a “prominent quarterback,” that people familiar with the matter say was Brady.

In the meantime, the NFL’s quarterback carousel began spinning and the Buccaneers weren’t part of it despite appearing to need a quarterback to replace Brady. The Denver Broncos traded for Russell Wilson from the Denver Broncos. The Washington Commanders got Carson Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts. While Aaron Rodgers decided to stay put in Green Bay, other prominent quarterbacks from Houston’s Deshaun Watson and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo remained available.

It turned out, Tampa Bay had good reason not to race into the quarterback market. On Saturday, Brady shrugged off Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo when Ronaldo asked Brady: “You’re finished, right?”

Then, on Sunday night, Brady said he was coming back.

“These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands. That time will come. But it’s not now,” he wrote on social media. “I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady turns 45 on Aug. 3.


photo:

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Brady is 44 years old, and he will be 45 by the next time the season starts. But after he has spent recent years speaking about his desire to play until he’s 45, the revelation of his return wasn’t particularly absurd. It was less crazy given that, even though he’s the oldest player in the NFL, he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns this past season before the Buccaneers bowed out in the divisional round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams.

Brady’s announcement also came at a salient moment. NFL free agency starts this week. It’s a time when players compete over stacks of money—and the most attractive destinations to potentially win a Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay is now one of those destinations. The Buccaneers still have Tom Brady.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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