Has Tom Brady played his last game with the Buccaneers? With retirement rumors swirling around the 44-year-old quarterback before the 30-27 NFC divisional playoff loss to Los Angeles, that's one of the many big questions to be answered in Tampa Bay in 2022.
The No. 2 seed and host Bucs fell short in a Brady-led epic comeback attempt, which also meant they fell two wins short of repeating as Super Bowl champions. That pushes the Bucs early into a tricky offseason that carries a wide range of outcomes. They could either remain elite championship contenders or at worst, drop into rebuilding mode.
First, Brady has to decide whether he wants to return for his age 45 season with his second team. He is under contract for $25.4 million through 2022. The Bucs still have many strong promising pieces, offensively and defensively, that he might make him believe he can make one more run at an eighth ring. Then again, he could be satisfied with already winning a ring away from the Patriots and Bill Belichick to stamp his career as the unquestioned GOAT QB.
Brady still played at high level, but it's a year-long toll to stay in shape and continue to fight Father Time. He could go either way in wanting a lot more of the grind in pursuit of a little more glory. What Brady decides will influence his favorite go-to tight end, Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is unsigned going into his age 33 season and may, like after winning Super Bowl 53 vs. the Rams, opt to retire, this time for real. Without Brady, the Bucs would suddenly need to find a QB solution, likely another veteran bridge given they still pick late in the first round of the draft.
Should Brady return, there also are concerns. Below are the list of key pending unrestricted free agents, along with Gronkowski, several of them up in years, too:
- RB Leonard Fournette
- RB Ronald Jones
- RB Giovani Bernard
- WR Chris Godwin
- TE O.J. Howard
- C Ryan Jensen
- DT Ndamukong Suh
- DE William Gholston
- OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
- CB Carlton Davis
- S Jordan Whitehead
The Buccaneers, according to OverTheCap.com , are looking at less than $20 million in salary cap space. Even with some creative contract work, they won't be able to keep their starting personnel intact. Brady must weigh playing on a lesser aging team in some areas vs. being further rejuvenated by playing with right tackle Tristan Wirfs, nose tackle Vita Vea, inside linebacker Devin White, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and other core youngsters.
Another important pro toward Brady staying is the fact the Panthers and Falcons remain weak in the NFC South and the post-Drew Brees Saints might be facing a QB and/or coaching transition. With him, the Bucs will be in a favorable position to rack up big wins as a division powerhouse even with a few player losses.
Looking at the bigger picture in the NFC, Aaron Rodgers isn't certain to return to the Packers and the Rams are an "all-in" playoff team with a fade looming. The 49ers are set to break in a new QB, the Cardinals have their share of free agent and age issues. The Cowboys, are well, the Cowboys. The Bucs with Brady would have shot as fair as any of those teams to get to the Super Bowl next year.
Had the Buccaneers seen their 27-3 second-half deficit turn into an all-out Rams rout, there might have been a lot less confidence about the team still having another Super Bowl run left in it. But in the end, the Bucs, despite key injuries, led by Wirfs and Godwin, hung in there against a loaded Rams team with a worthy QB counterpart to Brady in Matthew Stafford.
It's hard to keep a championship game team together in the modern NFL, unless a team is doing it with a top-flight QB on his rookie contract. Parity and roster turnover come with the territory. Brady, along with defying age, has been the centerpiece of bucking that trend, first with major help from Bill Belichick in New England and second by and-picking the ideal complementary team in Tampa.
There's no doubt Brady has at least one more great season left in him and the Bucs' championship window isn't suddenly slammed shut, given they rose from NFC wild card risers to mighty No. 2 seed. But it's most up to him whether it will be kept wide open.