Inside Tom Brady’s rapid return to the NFL from retirement

0 Comments

This was already The Week That Shook The NFL To The Core. A player was suspended for a year for gambling on NFL games. Two hours apart, Aaron Rodgers stayed and Russell Wilson left. Carson Wentz was traded to his third team in 14 months. Deshaun Watson took a giant step toward being traded. Khalil Mack’s a Charger, Joe Buck’s on ESPN, Amari Cooper’s a Brown, Kirk Cousins is filthy rich—again.

Nice offseason.

Then, on the seventh day, the NFL did not rest. It had an earthquake.

At 7:13 Sunday night, Tom Brady unretired.

Legends, totally healthy, totally smitten with their profession, don’t stop loving their jobs because history says they can’t be great at 45. Don’t complicate this. A man who loves his job wanted to keep doing it. That’s exactly what happened here.

That doesn’t mean the world wasn’t shocked Sunday night when the news broke. Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band tweeted: “Holy sh–! Brady’s back!”

Brady unretiring after 40 days as a man of leisure wasn’t a shock to all. There was quiet chatter that Brady was having second thoughts after his Feb. 1 retirement, and coach Bruce Arians and GM Jason Licht were using quiet diplomacy with him in the past couple of weeks. Licht and Arians did it the smart way: no pressure, take your time, do what makes you happy, we’ll always have a spot for you. When I met with Licht at the NFL Scouting Combine nine days ago, I sensed he thought the Bucs had a chance at Brady returning.

“Always thought there was a chance,” Arians told me in a text Sunday night. “Slim, but had fingers crossed the last few weeks.”

Meanwhile, Brady took advantage of that leisure time to figure out his life. He and his family went to Costa Rica, to New York, and to England (most recently) to watch Manchester United. On Saturday, Man U star Cristiano Ronaldo scored three goals in a 3-2 win over Tottenham, and afterward, cameras caught him asking Brady, “All good? You’re finished, right?” Brady made a face like, Ummmm, well, not really. And a day later, Brady made it official.

So what happened? I think once Brady found out his family backed him doing what he truly wanted to do—play or not play—he figured he had clearance to make the decision he wanted to make. That decision, his good friend and podcast partner Jim Gray told me Sunday night, was rooted in how he feels about football, and how he feels, period.

“I don’t think Tom wanted to be sitting there, out of the game and watching football in September and thinking, ‘I’m as good as those guys. I can still do this. I still love it,’ “ Gray said.

Logically, the world wondered what his wife, Gisele Bundchen, thought of her husband continuing to play. Apparently, she felt pretty good. “Here we go again! Let’s go Bucs!” she said on social media.

Go back to the end of the season. Brady led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes, the Bucs went 13-4, and, against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the playoffs, Brady led a furious comeback from 24 points down to tie the game with 42 seconds left. Tampa Bay lost 30-27 on a last-second field goal.

“It takes a whole lot to turn off that love of the game,” Gray said Sunday night. “He would not play if he didn’t think he could win the Super Bowl.”

There was a subplot in the Brady return Sunday. It revolved around Brady and free-agent Bucs center Ryan Jensen.

Jensen’s agent, Mike McCartney, had been engaged in talks to try to get Jensen, 30, re-signed before the legal tampering began today at noon ET. But it was a slog. McCartney wanted $13 million per year for Jensen, minimum, to stay in Tampa, and the cap-strapped Bucs weren’t going there. But Sunday afternoon, Brady reached out to Jensen. What he said exactly, I don’t know. But it was something like, I’m coming back and I need you and we gotta get your deal done. Maybe Brady said he pushed the Bucs to be sure they got a deal done with Jensen.

Brady doesn’t have a lot of must-haves, or guys he feels close to and really wants to have at his side. Tight end Ron Gronkowski is one, a clear number one. Jensen, on the Bucs, is two. Particularly with the uncertainty at guard in Tampa with the retirement of Pro Bowler Ali Marpet, getting his center back was a must for Brady.

So Brady calling Jensen, and Brady coming back, did two things: It motivated Jensen to forgo the market, where McCartney thought he might be able to get a $15-million-a-year average. And it motivated the Bucs—clearly after Brady telling them he wanted Jensen back—to up the offer to the veteran center to get the deal done Sunday night, before McCartney could begin playing one offer against another today.

The happy result for player and team: Jensen signed for three years and $39 million (in Florida, with the plus of no state tax). He didn’t want to move, and now gets to stay with Brady and the Bucs. And Tampa ensures the return of both tackles and a very good center who Brady valued greatly. Win-win.

Regarding Brady’s other priorities: Gronkowski’s free, and his friends think he’ll return if Brady asks. Wide receiver Chris Godwin, a Brady favorite, is rehabbing a torn ACL while on the franchise tag. I’d expect the Brady return to influence Godwin’s decision to sign the tag or do a longer deal. He loves Brady.

The collateral effects of Brady returning are many.

• The NFL schedule just got an infusion of prime-time and doubleheader-window games. Howard Katz’s schedule team has been working on the schedule daily since mid-January, and working on the premise that the Tampa Bay quarterback was going to be someone other than Brady. Without Brady, Tampa Bay might have been in prime time maybe three times. With Brady, Tampa will max out its prime-time appearances. (The max is six prime-time games scheduled to start the year, with the prospect of a team being flexed into a seventh.)

• The matchups. Look at the made-for-TV games Brady just made happen (assuming he stays healthy). The Super Bowl champ Rams at Brady and Tampa. The fifth Brady-Aaron Rodgers meeting, the fourth Brady-Patrick Mahomes meeting, the first Brady-Joe Burrow meeting. Brady, one more time at the Steelers. Brady, one more time at the beloved team of his youth, the Niners. What an incredible group of games.

• Happiest people, outside of Tampa, might be in Munich. The Bucs, with maybe Kyle Trask playing quarterback, might have been 4-5 by the time they played the first-ever NFL game in Germany in mid-November. But now, with Brady the likely starter, that game will be a mega-event in Europe.

Late Sunday night, a prominent agent texted me gee-whizzing about the night and the week. “This is fantasy football in 3D!” he texted. “This week defined and redefined what the NFL is today. And the fans love it.”

Big events in the NFL have a natural megaphone with the cacophonous media covering it. What Brady did fit right in to the 24/7/365 world the league has created. With opening day six months away, appetites are whetted. Brady’s too.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column