Niyo: Tom Brady appears headed to Tampa Bay, closes epic legacy in New England

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The sports world largely fell silent over the weekend, as the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered our daily lives. And quite understandably, there was some pushback as the NFL proceeded with business as usual.

The players’ union ratified a new collective bargaining agreement, securing labor peace for another decade. The league went ahead with the scheduled start of free agency, too, beginning with a two-day negotiating window Monday, as teams slapped franchise tags on their own star players and came to terms on eight-figure contracts for others.

A bouquet of flowers and a sign thanking former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who announced he was leaving the football team, rest on the sidewalk outside the TB12 training center in Boston on Tuesday.

But no one was quite prepared for the sort of social distancing Tuesday morning delivered, as Tom Brady bid farewell to the New England Patriots and perhaps signaled an end to one of the greatest sports dynasties in U.S. professional sports.

If sports fans were looking for a distraction — a diversion of some kind — it’s hard to imagine one bigger than that.

"Although my football journey will take place elsewhere,” Brady wrote in an Instagram post announcing his decision at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, “I appreciate everything that we have achieved and am grateful for our incredible TEAM accomplishments.”

He went on to thank his teammates, coaches, executives and ownership, before saluting Patriots fans in a separate post that included this line: “I don't know what my football future holds, but it is time for me to open a new stage for my life and career.”

Bucs fever

And with that, not only did a bizarre NFL offseason have its seminal moment, but TV and radio talk shows had some ready-made debate topics to fill the uncomfortable silence. Where will Brady end up? What will the domino effect be on the rest of the quarterbacks in free agency and the draft? (That’s something that mitght even impact the Lions and their coveted No. 3 overall draft pick this year.) And who gets most of the credit for all the accomplishments in New England over the last two decades: Brady or Bill Belichick?

The short answer is they both do, after winning six Super Bowls, nine AFC championships, 30 playoff games and a whopping 16 division titles together — 17 if you include the 2008 season when Brady suffered a torn ACL in the opener. But the longer one will take some time to argue, as Belichick retools his roster behind a new starting quarterback and 42-year-old Brady waits to break the news to everyone where he’ll be playing next season.

There were many suitors, but Tampa was the likely choice, according to ESPN and the NFL Network, though an official announcement wasn’t expected before Wednesday.

There he'll find warmer weather, no state income tax and an entirely different style of head coach in Bruce Arians, both schematically and demonstratively, which may be exactly what Brady wants at this stage of his career.

Brady certainly isn’t the player he once was, but he still threw for more than 4,000 yards last season and has said he wants to play until he’s 45. And after years of sacrificing salary to make his team whole — something he undoubtedly would’ve been asked to do again to stay in New England, with Belichick in charge — he’ll likely cash in now. The Buccaneers were flush with salary-cap space even after locking up Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the defensive side this week.

Beyond that, a big part of Brady’s greatness has been his inner drive to prove himself all over again, year after year. He’s as relentless a competitor as there is in the NFL — the comparisons to Michael Jordan run much deeper than the half-dozen championship rings they've each won — and it’s a safe bet Brady is up for one final challenge. One he’ll tackle the same way that fourth-string QB did after introducing himself to Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the start of the millennium, boldly telling him, “I’m the best decision this franchise has ever made.”

'Greatest of all time'

The wheels for this decision — delivered on a St. Patrick’s Day no one in Boston will ever forget — were set in motion long ago, quite frankly. Kraft tried to tamp down reports of discord between Belichick and Brady two years ago, even after the Patriots traded away his heir apparent in Jimmy Garoppolo. And though Brady returned and led the team to another Super Bowl title in 2018, last year’s contract restructuring gave both sides an escape clause this winter. Brady and his wife, Giselle Bundchen, sold their home and he stepped back from his local role in Boston with his favorite charity.

Kraft told ESPN that he met with the quarterback Monday night at the owner’s home and had a “positive, respectful discussion.”

Tom Brady

“It's not the way I want it to end, but I want him to do what is in his best personal interest,” Kraft said. “After 20 years with us, he has earned that right. I love him like a son."

Brady and Belichick reportedly spoke over the phone late last month as well, but as the league gathered in Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine a few weeks ago, the uncertainty had given way to a healthy skepticism about whether Brady would return to the Patriots.

Tuesday, we got the final word. Many of them, actually, including some notable ones in a statement from Belichick, the gruff coaching genius who offers individual praise sparingly.  

"Sometimes in life, it takes some time to pass before truly appreciating something or someone but that has not been the case with Tom,” Belichick said. “He is a special person and the greatest quarterback of all-time."

Brady is also not ready to call it quits, however. And after the Patriots’ wild-card playoff loss at Tennessee in January, Brady spoke like someone who knew his time was up in New England even as he noted retirement was “pretty unlikely.”

Which pretty well sums up his career to this point, when you think about it. Brady completed his first NFL regular-season pass at the Silverdome nearly 20 years ago on Thanksgiving, replacing then-Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe in a 34-9 blowout loss — yes, a loss — to the Lions. But there wouldn’t be many more games like that for the rookie sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan.

Twenty years with one team is remarkable in any league, let alone the NFL, where free agency and the salary cap take care of whatever the injuries can’t when it comes to player movement. But for a quarterback? Come on.

Dan Marino and John Elway spent their entire careers in one city, but Marino’s lasted 17 in Miami while Elway made it 16 in Denver and Brady has won 100 more games than each of them. Troy Aikman? His dozen years in Dallas almost pales in comparison.

Only former Lions kicker Jason Hanson played in more games (333) for one team in league history than Brady's 326 with the Patriots. A whopping 249 ended in victory for Brady and the Pats, too, which is 74 more than the next-most for a non-specialist (Jerry Rice) since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, according to Pro Football Reference.

As for the seismic impact of Brady’s free-agent departure, it’s not unprecedented. Joe Montana finished his career in Kansas City, Brett Favre in Minnesota and Peyton Manning in Denver. The curtain finally fell on “Broadway Joe” Namath’s career after one final injury-plagued season in Hollywood.

Montana and Favre made the playoffs with new teams, and Manning won a Super Bowl in his fourth year with the Broncos, after beating Brady and the Patriots — who else? — in the AFC Championship game.

This just feels different, though both, for what Brady meant to the Patriots and what it means now, given the backdrop his departure is set against. The sports world has come to a standstill, and one of its biggest icons is moving on.

Strange days, indeed. @JohnNiyo

Staying power

Most games played for a single team in NFL history (including playoffs):

►Jason Hanson: 333, Lions

►Tom Brady: 326, Patriots

►Darrell Green: 313, Redskins

►Bruce Matthews: 311, Oilers/Titans

►Jim Marshall: 289, Vikings

Most victories played In (including playoffs) for a single team since merger:

►Tom Brady: 249, Patriots

►Stephen Gostkowski: 178, Patriots

►Jerry Rice: 175, 49ers

►Darrell Green: 174, Redskins

Source: Pro Football Reference