TAMPA — As Tom Brady jogged off the field Monday night at Raymond James Stadium, he lifted the hat he was wearing and waved it in acknowledgment of the fans around the tunnel leading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room. He stopped by the edge of the field and spoke to his parents and sister, who were waiting for him there. Then he left the field, catching up to walk alongside Buccaneers wide receiver Julio Jones toward the locker room — and toward the rest of his life, whatever that may mean.
The legendary quarterback may have said his farewell to the Buccaneers late Monday night. He just might have said his goodbye, for the second time, to the NFL. If he knew, he wasn’t saying so.
“I’m going to go home and get a good night’s sleep — as good as I can tonight,” Brady said to a roomful of reporters following the Buccaneers’ 31-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in a first-round NFC playoff game.
Brady was asked what his decision-making process would entail and how long it might take. He was having none of it, at least not in the immediate aftermath of one of his least commanding postseason performances.
“It’s been a lot of focus on this game,” Brady said. “It’ll just be one day at a time, truly.”
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Brady is eligible for free agency this offseason. He turns 46 in August. He must make some decisions, one year after he retired and then un-retired six weeks later.
“I think there’s lessons for all of us every year, every year of our life,” he said. “So you always want every year to end great. Unfortunately in sports, it doesn’t work that way. There’s 32 teams in the league. And they’re all very competitive. Only one of them is really going to feel good at the end of the year. So as many teams that won [this weekend], there’s going to be seven of the eight that don’t feel great at the end of the year. That’s why it feels good when you’re on top and you win it all.”
If this was the end for Brady with the Buccaneers — or if it was Brady’s final NFL game — it was an inglorious conclusion. He and the Buccaneers were overmatched. He had 66 passing attempts. He threw for 351 yards and two touchdowns. But most of the good was cosmetic, accomplished long after the game was decided. The Buccaneers didn’t score until the final play of the third quarter. Brady threw the first red-zone interception of his Buccaneers tenure, a puzzling toss into the end zone while he was trying to throw the ball away.
“They played pretty good,” Brady said of the Cowboys. “They played good defensively and put a lot of pressure on us. We just couldn’t make enough plays. So it was kind of typical of the way we played all year, just inefficient in the passing game and not very good in the running game. So it’s hard to beat good teams like that.”
Brady has lined up a lucrative deal to be an NFL analyst for Fox once he’s done playing. There are likely to be NFL teams willing to sign him if he wants to keep playing. Some associates believe Brady probably will play next season, though they caution they don’t consider that certain. Any decision about a new team could depend, they say, on family considerations and proximity to his kids.
“We’ll sit down and have a conversation,” Buccaneers Coach Todd Bowles said. “And we’ll talk about it at that time. It’s not anything publicly that needs to be said at this time.”
Brady has spent three seasons with the Buccaneers after 20 with the New England Patriots. He is now two seasons removed from winning his seventh Super Bowl title in his first season with Tampa Bay.
“You never rebuild,” Bowles said. “You always reload. You know you’ve got a chance to win every year. We’ve got to tweak some things from a schematic standpoint all the way around. … And obviously no one ever comes back with every player on the team. So we’ll have some new faces in here. That’s just part of the game.”
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Brady endured the first losing season of his career. His personal life was scrutinized in media coverage of his divorce. There were moments of late-game magic, but they came only occasionally. Brady said Monday that it is “always tough” to have a season end. But in this case, the conclusion was decisive.
“We didn’t earn it,” he said. “[The Cowboys] did. I think that there’s a part of football where I feel like it’s sometimes you get lucky. But most of the time, the team that earns it wins. And they played good all year. They played good tonight. They played well as a team. They were very coordinated. They played well on offense. They played well defensively. They missed some kicks on special teams. But we just couldn’t do enough on offense to put any pressure on them.”
If there were any clues as to the next steps, they were more subtle than overt. Brady’s mother was emotional as she walked off the field following the postgame conversation. Brady was asked later whether his emotions at the end of this game and this season were anything out of the ordinary.
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“It just feels like the end of the season,” he said, then immediately followed that response with an address that sounded something like a farewell speech — perhaps to the Buccaneers more so than the NFL.
“I just want to say thank you, guys, for everything,” Brady told the gathered media members. “I really appreciate all your efforts. I know it’s hard for you guys, too. It’s hard for us players to make it through. You guys have got a tough job. I appreciate all that you guys do to cover us. … I love this organization. It’s a great place to be. I thank everybody for welcoming me. All you regulars, I’m just very grateful for the respect. And I hope I gave the same thing back to you guys.”
Then he exited, toward an uncertain football future.