By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The one thing about Tom Brady is that he's never been a Brett Favre -- and we're not just talking about the ol' gunslinger's penchant for throwing a million interceptions. With Brady, there's never ever been a will-he-or-won't-he aspect to his decisions to continue playing in the NFL. On that, Brady has been quite clear:
I'm going to play to age 45 -- at least to age 45 -- and then assess where I'm at, and then potentially keep playing. I don't ever want to stop playing. I have no reason to want to stop playing.
Put more succinctly, Brady has said, "When I suck, I'll retire."
That's precisely why this sudden emergence of a Brady retirement story line is hard to figure out. Because Tom Brady definitely does not suck.
Last week, it was ESPN's Seth Wickersham coming out of left field and saying that he expected this to be Brady's final season in the NFL. Now on Sunday, the floodgates have opened, with the Schefters and Rapoports of the world digging in to the possibility of Brady walking away at the end of this postseason run -- be it following a Bucs Super Bowl victory or a playoff loss along the way.
While it shouldn't be shocking or surprising to hear that a 44-year-old quarterback might not want to play tackle football at age 45, it absolutely is a bit strange for this possibility to go from nonexistent to very real in the span of seven days.
Because, again, to be clear: Tom Brady does not "suck." He led the NFL in passing touchdowns and passing yards this year. He made it uninjured through the league's first 17-game NFL schedule, using that extra game to top 40 touchdowns for just the second time in his career and top 5,300 yards for the first time of his career.
When you consider that Tom Brady's been playing football for quite some time, and that he's considered almost universally to be the greatest to ever do it, it kind of says a lot that he's posting some of the best numbers of his career at the age of 44. Add in that most human beings don't even consider trying to play in the NFL at that age, let alone thriving in the NFL at that age ...
... and it makes this story rather peculiar.
Brady will either be announced as the NFL's MVP in the coming weeks, or he'll be announced as the runner-up to Aaron Rodgers. Being one of the two most valuable players in the entire league -- a league played by men 10 and 15 years younger than Brady -- is unquestionably a long way away from "sucking."
Adding to the puzzling scenario is that Brady reworked his contract last offseason, essentially setting him up to fulfill that long-promised goal of playing to age 45, with the assessment of his status to come after the 2022 season. It's unclear why the clock has been accelerated a year.
All that has changed in the past 10 days or so has been another playoff win added to Brady's ledger. He had a decent but unspectacular day against the Eagles last week, completing 29 of his 37 passes for 271 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He did take four sacks, though all came on third down, when Brady opted to cut his losses rather than force passes and risk an unnecessary turnover in a game the Bucs probably couldn't lose if they tried.
Brady improved to 35-11 in the playoffs, creating a little extra space between himself and Joe Montana, who still ranks second with 16. (Brady won his 16th playoff game in 2011.)
Brady put to bed any talk of a "cliff" long ago. His arm strength remains as good as ever. His pocket mobility remains elite -- and he also ran for 81 yards this season, his highest in a decade. He just threw 719 passes this year -- the second-most passes anyone has ever thrown in any season in NFL history. And he doesn't exactly look worn out by the workload.
Perhaps one area that Brady might be lacking is enjoyment, as this season has involved a bit more struggle with a few more bumps in the road than his honeymoon season in Tampa in 2020. From the Antonio Brown saga (which really stretched through most of the season, culminating in the mid-game blowup), to the injuries, to the makeshift backfield, it hasn't necessarily been smooth sailing this season. Reflecting back on Brady's final season in New England, it was evident that his passion and enjoyment were both lacking that year. He's used his various documentary vehicles to explain just how necessary a positive energy is for him to succeed and enjoy his career. If one were to take a stab at what has changed for Brady since the summer, that may be the best bet, because he's certainly been able to produce results. At the same time, this would also be a complete and total guess as to what may be happening inside of Brady's brain and body.
For now, though, Brady is gearing up to face the Rams in the divisional round, and there's apparently a very real chance that it's the final time of his life that he'll be putting on the pads and competing on an NFL field.
Given the age, the history, everything else, we shouldn't be surprised by this news. We should have been expecting it.
Yet despite all of that ... this news still manages to hit unexpectedly.
Whatever the play here may be -- some sort of ploy to sell more sweatshirts, some motivational tactic to inspire the team, or a legitimate consideration of walking away from football -- the news is certain to cast a certain air over Sunday's game and any that might follow this winter for Brady.
Call it the Brady Paradox: Though he's already played at a championship level for five years longer than anyone could have ever rightfully expected, this still feels sudden. And a retirement would absolutely feel premature for a player of Brady's caliber performing so well at this point in time.
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