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IF BRADY PROLONGS HIS MADNESS, IT DOESN’T MEAN WE HAVE TO WATCH
Since winning a seventh Super Bowl ring, the G.O.A.T. has lost 11 of his last 19 games — and his wife — and turned a mid-life obsession into a sad reality: It’s time to retire and launch his TV career
Time succumbed to Tom Brady long ago. But life? It’s laughing at him, in what seems an endless strip-sack, punishing him with a divorce because he insisted on playing football with nothing left to accomplish. If he thought he wasn’t human, that he could keep winning championships when others his age were requesting airport wheelchairs, he now knows otherwise.
Or, at least, he must sense it.
“It’ll be just one day at a time. Truly,” he said, ready for leisure in a black hoodie and backwards cap, in his final public words before deciding whether to retire or — please, no — keep playing next season.
A passing fancy crashed in feeble and pitiable failure Monday night, in the same stadium where he won a Super Bowl two years earlier in a validation of his mid-life professional dalliance. A defiant bastard succeeded in beating time. Yes, he did, and it’s a triumph perhaps never to be repeated in a sport where millennials and Gen Zers and future generations will be too smart and wealthy to play until 45. It figures on the other hand that life, eternally undefeated, has reduced Tom Brady to a lab rat.
He’s spinning in circles, double-clutching and throwing his first end-zone interception since 2019. He’s slumping to his knees and slapping himself in the head, knowing his gaffe would cost the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in what bled into a 31-14 mess in an NFC wild-card game. If it’s possible to look older than Jerry Jones, who still is hugging family members in a stadium suite, Brady pulled it off in a loss to a performer who resembled the Brady of yore — a suddenly dazzling Dak Prescott, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for another — and the rampaging Dallas Cowboys. He lost for the 10th time in 18 games, concluding the only losing season of his football life.
Gradually, what has represented an all-time sporting conquest — of mind, body and soul — is devolving into something grotesque. Always a servant to his competitive inferno, Brady is a prisoner to an insatiable obsession. The sinister skull on his pewter helmet signifies the end of the championship quarterback and the lingering stubbornness of a man who won’t accept that it’s 2023, that he has played more years in the NFL than he otherwise has been alive, that the league belongs to stars almost half his age (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts), another who already has been anointed as his heir (Joe Burrow) and another once rendered a bust (Daniel Jones). There’s even a quirky interloper (Brock Purdy) who was four days’ old when Brady was finishing his college days at Michigan, shortly before he was taken 199th in the 2000 draft. I’ve said all along that Brady has earned the right to make his own life decisions, realizing most people aren’t ordered to retire in their mid-40s.
But now that he has lost the big game AND the girl, it’s time to reassess the future of a G.O.A.T. who is playing like an actual goat. He can’t possibly do this again. Can he? Wasn’t the devil weighing in when Brady was forced to throw 66 passes, second-most ever in a playoff game?
The longer he keeps playing, the more he’ll distance himself from seven championships and risk looking like a freak show. There will be options, from staying with a Buccaneers team that accommodated him amid marital strife to rejoining his old partner in New England crime, Josh McDaniels, with the Raiders. Isn’t Las Vegas where lost men go when trying to find themselves? But if he persists, extending his madness to a 24th season in his 46th year on Earth, he should accept there won’t be another championship. There will be more thrown tablets, more sideline tantrums, more regression in his game.
Does he want that? Ugly as his exit was this season, it could be worse next time, maybe in the regular season. Isn’t a serious injury almost inevitable at this point? Remember, his ex-wife divorced him for a reason. “Obviously, I have my concerns," Gisele Bundchen told Vanity Fair last summer. “This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present. I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for (them). He needs to follow his joy, too.”
He followed it to … where, exactly?
“Not the way we wanted to end it,” he said, “but we didn’t deserve it.”
The perfect ending — one-upping nemesis Bill Belichick, winning in his new home stadium in Florida, tossing the Vince Lombardi Trophy across the Hillsborough River during a tequila bender — has faded to black. His loss to Dallas, in his record 48th postseason game, came only weeks after Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on a field and returned from the dead twice, in a sport where players experience brain trauma and need new hips and use crutches until their dying days. On this night, Buccaneers receiver Russell Gage was carried off on a stretcher, hospitalized with a concussion and neck injuries — a scene watched stonily by Brady, who stood beside medical personnel as players from both teams prayed. If he carries on, he has to know his career could end horribly in an instant. He is not invincible, and if he hasn’t learned as much this season, he isn’t as smart as I thought.
He says he’s considering retirement. We’ve heard it before, but this time, his words are coated in realism. They’d better be. “I'm gonna go home and get a good night's sleep — as good as I can tonight,” Brady said. “This has been all I've focused on — this game.” Then came the thank-yous, which sounded like goodbyes, starting with gratitude for the media, of all people.
“It just feels like the end of the season,” he said. “I just want to say thank you guys for everything you did this year. I really appreciate all your effort. I know it's hard for you guys. I know it's hard for us players to make it through. You guys got a tough job, and I appreciate all you guys do to cover us, and everyone who watches and is a big fan of the sport — we're very grateful for everyone's support. I love this organization. It's a great place to be.”
Then this man, often compared to a cyborg or an automaton, revealed his emotions. Brady struggled to maintain his composure. “Thank you everybody for welcoming me, all the regulars," he said. “And I'm just very grateful for the respect, and I hope I gave the same thing back to you guys. So thank you very much.”
His teammates made sure to return the thanks. They saw him wave his cap to the crowd, the kisses he gave his parents. “I told him, 'No matter what, you're the G.O.A.T. in my eyes,’ ’’ linebacker Lavonte David said. “It's definitely a surreal feeling, to watch somebody as a kid, and then obviously getting the chance to be in the locker room and talking with him, competing against him (in practice) — you see why he’s the guy he is, why he's great.”
It’s not as if he’d have to fade away, vanishing into a cave somewhere. Brady is free to work for Fox Sports at his whim, at the upcoming Super Bowl in Arizona if he likes. His 10-year, $375 million contract has been in play since last spring, and at some point, he must be a good teammate and not force the network to keep using Greg Olsen as a placeholder on the No. 1 broadcast team. There’s no reason to force-feed a 24th season on the field when, honestly, the public isn’t clamoring for it. He is tempting another wave of Brady Fatigue nationally. This would be a fine time to reinvent himself.
But try telling that to the lab rat. Somewhere, deep inside, he must realize his quarterbacking career is at rock-bottom and the end is here. That doesn’t mean he won’t wake up in a week or two and decide he wants to throw deep patterns to Davante Adams in Vegas.
I was the one who stood outside a gym one summer, on Chicago’s west side, and waited for Michael Jordan to explain again why he was returning to the NBA with the nondescript Washington Wizards. Like Brady, he wanted to feed his competitive addiction. Unlike Brady, he still was smarting over the wrecking-balling of a dynasty, wanting to leave the NBA on his own terms. The football G.O.A.T. won that war two years ago, claiming his seventh ring while Belichick has failed to win a playoff game and missed the postseason twice. As the owner of almost every league passing record and the winner of more championships than anyone who has played the sport, nothing remains for him to do.
Sad, but that’s exactly what his now-former wife said as they embraced after Super Bowl LV, celebrating in their new city. “What more do you have to prove?” Mrs. Brady wanted to know on the field.
Asked about the scene later, he said, “I just gave her a big hug. ... I was trying to figure out a way to change the subject really quick.”
Since then, Tom Brady has been purged from the playoffs twice. He has lost 11 of his last 19 games. And he has lost Mrs. Brady.
Life shouldn’t be laughing. It should join the rest of us in feeling sorry for him. If he retires, he finally gets it. If he keeps playing, he has an incurable disease best worth ignoring.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.