This has not been the kind of season that Tom Brady expected.
But is this really how it ends? With Brady manning a team that finishes with a losing record for the first time in his entire football career? That’s right. This was the first season Brady as at the helm of a team that finished under .500, dating back to his high school days.
25-straight years with a winning record.
Until this year.
It could all come to an end tonight, with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Or Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could forge on for another week, or even longer. But when Brady’s 2022-2023 season does come to a close, will he hang up the cleats for good?
That’s not going to happen.
Because Brady did not unretire, and come back to the game, to go out like this. With a losing record, with so many questions lingering over him, and with his biggest critic wondering if the game has — finally — passed him by.
To understand Brady is to understand the art of self motivation. Professional athletes are talented in many ways, but finding disrespect — even where none is intended — is perhaps their greatest gift. Opposing coach is tempered with their words in the week before a game? Disrespect. Opposing player praises others a bit more than you before a matchup? Disrespect. Media members question whether a cliff is around the corner? Disrespect.
Of all his elite traits, and Brady has many, this might be his greatest.
Brady’s ability to find that extra bit of motivation has fueled him throughout his career. Think back to his days at Michigan. After being recruited by Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr took over the program, and Brady looked like he might get buried on the depth chart. Brady told Carr at the end of his redshirt season that he would be transferring. Carr told him to think on his decision.
Brady returned to his coach the next day, told him he would be staying, and said this: “I’m staying,” Brady declared to his coach, “And I’m going to prove to you I am a great quarterback.”
After falling to the sixth round of the 1999 NFL draft, Brady was selected by the New England Patriots. When he met owner Robert Kraft, Brady again found a way to self motivate, telling his new employer: “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.”
During his time with the Patriots, Brady’s ability to self motivate was the stuff of legends. He often spoke of how, during his time in New England, he would convince himself he was not very good, and that he needed to prove every single day that he was still the best option at quarterback for the Patriots.
Now, facing his 46th birthday this August, there is someone else Brady needs to prove wrong.
As Brady himself wrote back in April of 2020, when he decided to leave New England:
At this point in my career, the only person I have to prove anything to is myself. Physically, I’m as capable of doing my job as I’ve ever been. Now I want to see what more I can do. I want to see how great I can be. I want to hear other people say, “Go, man. Now that’s what we’ve been missing. That’s what we need! That’s what we’ve been looking for!” Deep down I know what I can do. I know what I can bring. Now I want to see it in action.
As Brady said to James Corden back in 2021:
“It’s hard to walk away from something that you still feel like you can do and you want to do,” Brady said. “So it’s not about proving it to others what you can do, it’s more about proving it to yourself. And I still feel like even though I’ll be 44 this year, I still have a chance to still prove it to myself that I can still do it at 44, because I really worked to a point where I can still do it at this age.”
And yes, Brady can still play.
Brady is just a season removed from leading the NFL with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. During 2021 he was also fifth in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, with a mark of 7.41. While those numbers did take a step back this year, even a season of “step backs” sees Brady among the league leaders in a number of statistical categories.
You can still see it on film, too.
Throughout the Buccaneers’ struggles this season, limping to an 8-9 record, and finding it hard to maintain any consistency on offense, Brady still showed that he can spin it with the best of them. He showed it during comebacks against the Los Angeles Rams and later the New Orleans Saints. He showed it during a pivotal late-season win over the Carolina Panthers.
He showed it in the overtime win against the Arizona Cardinals.
Brady’s final chapter is not yet written, and his final round with Father Time has not begun. There will come a day when his fastball is no longer at his side, when the throws come out a step or two later each snap, or where his pocket management skills finally let him down.
That day has not yet arrived.
Nor will it arrive this offseason, when there is still that biggest doubter left to prove wrong.