Is This The End Of Tom Brady's Reign Over the NFL?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 24, 2022

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field after a drive stalled during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

There are certain constants in the universe. Things that just happen.

Sadly, we will all die one day. Sadly, every April the tax man slices off a fat slab of our yearly cheese. And every year in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, Tom Brady advances. Sunday's visit from the Los Angeles Rams marked the 17th time that he played in that round of the postseason.

He had lost just twice before this year.

Well, you can make that three times. The Rams not only flipped the script, but doused it in kerosene and set it on fire, outlasting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-27 in the most thrilling postseason game of the year so far.

It's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen. Not to the Golden Boy. Not in the postseason. And as the dust settles on Tampa's season and Brady rides off into the sunset of an offseason that will see him turn 45 before he (ostensibly) plays another football game, it's fair to ask a question that seemed unthinkable not long ago—despite Brady's two decades of playing professional football.

Is this the end of Brady's reign over the NFL?

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

Now, before the "TB12" Legion descend upon my Twitter feed to accuse of being anti-Brady or ageist or drunk or something, let me make one thing abundantly clear—I am not blaming Brady for the Buccaneers falling into a 27-3 hole that the team just couldn't quite dig out of. Unless Brady was really showing off how fit he is by playing both ways, it wasn't his fault that Cooper Kupp got behind the Tampa defense for a 70-yard score and the catch that set up the game-winning kick. Or that Matthew Stafford was able to do as he pleased for most of the first three quarters of Sunday's game.

But Brady didn't have an especially Brady-esque afternoon, either. Over the first three quarters, he was a pedestrian 19-of-37 for 204 yards and an interception with a passer rating of 56.6. His first play of the fourth quarter was a strip-sack that would have been a killer had the Rams not given the ball right back to Tampa on the next play.

The Rams really did try to lose this game—especially late. But the Buccaneers tried harder, whether it was an offensive line under siege all afternoon long, a depleted receiver corps that struggled getting open downfield, defensive lapses or a veteran quarterback who, for 45 minutes, looked like anything but the greatest to ever play the game.

It was a team loss. A reminder that even Brady can't do it all himself. And even if he can, some days he just... doesn't.

Sunday dawned amid reports that the seemingly unthinkable might happen—that Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. might actually retire. And during the loss to the Rams, NBC Sports aired comments from Brady pertaining to what he viewed as the optimal scenario for riding off into the sunset a la John Elway and Peyton Manning.

Dov Kleiman @NFL_DovKleiman

Tom Brady on retirement. https://t.co/5UBwLoyvqQ

"Winning the Super Bowl, but I don't know that's this year," Brady said. "I'd love to end on a Super Bowl. ... But I think I'll know when I know. ... But there's a lot that's inconclusive."

Now, where this writer is concerned, the notion of Brady having just played his last game falls squarely in "believe it when you see it" territory. There's no way he is going out like that. And as he showed by roaring back with 125 passing yards and a score in the fourth quarter alone, he doesn't look finished physically by any stretch of the imagination.

Yes, Brady will be 45 when Week 1 rolls around in September. But this isn't Peyton Manning's last season, where the Broncos won the Super Bowl in spite of Manning's visibly diminished talents. Brady just threw for a career-high 5,316 yards. His 43 scoring passes in 2021 trail only his record-setting 2007 campaign.

If Brady isn't named the league's most valuable player at the NFL Honors on Feb. 10, he's a lock to finish no lower than second. His level of play is nothing short of amazing given his age.

But as we saw Sunday, Brady can't single-handedly carry the Buccaneers into another Super Bowl.

And the team around him faces more than a few uncertainties heading into the offseason.

There has been no indication that Tampa head coach Bruce Arians is planning a retirement party of his own, although that position could change once No. 12 decides enough is enough. But there could still be some significant changes to Tampa's staff, with both offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles getting significant run as head coaching candidates.

Then there's the offense around Brady—an area where we just saw the negative impact that personnel losses can have.

Yes, Mike Evans isn't going anywhere except Jalen Ramsey's nightmares. But Chris Godwin's loss to a torn ACL was a major blow for the Buccaneers, and he's about to hit free agency. So is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is 32 and clearly not the player he once was. Running back Leonard Fournette is set to hit the open market. So is running back Ronald Jones II. And center Ryan Jensen. And tackle Ryan Wells, who started Sunday in place of the injured Tristan Wirfs.

That's just on offense. On defense, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, edge-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead are among the prominent players who could be gone. And every step back the defense takes is slack the offense has to pick up.

Yes, some of those guys will be back. And outside free agents can be brought in to overcome some of the losses. But Tampa sits squarely in the middle of the pack in 2022 cap space, so there probably isn't going to be an offseason spending spree.

Unless Davante Adams wants to change his nickname to "Discount," he ain't headed to Tampa.

The reality is Brady and the Buccaneers already knew this. Bringing back all 11 starters on both offense and defense from last year's championship team was a remarkable feat. But it was also a one-shot deal—a gamble on repeating that came up just short.

Now, does all this mean that the Brady era of dominance over the NFL is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead? (That's a Wizard of Oz reference, for all you folks who can't even remember an NFL without Brady winning playoff games.)

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

Of course not. Sunday's fourth quarter was a reminder that we're still talking about Tom freaking Brady. The guy who came back from a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl. With Brady, it ain't over until it's over—and even then, there's still a chance.

Depending on what happens around the rest of the NFC in the offseason, even if the Buccaneers suffer some personnel losses this is still a team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender and the favorites to win the NFC South.

But winning the NFC South isn't good enough. Neither is winning a postseason game against an overmatched Eagles team in the Wild Card Round. Only one finish to the season is acceptable at this point in Brady's career—lifting an eighth Lombardi Trophy.

And that's a tall ask for a 45-year-old whose team in 2022 likely won't be as good on paper as it was in 2021.

Even if that quarterback is the best to ever play the game.