The truth is, it doesn’t always end in pathos.
Joe Montana took the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs in each of his final two seasons as a professional football player, and though he never looked quite right in anything but a 49ers uniform, those years should have enhanced his legacy, not diminished it. Steve Young had pushed him out of his old job, but he still had something left. Even if much of the magic was gone, you can bet he had no regrets.
Peyton Manning hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy following his final game as a pro. And yes, his Denver Broncos teammates really carried him that season. The golden arm that had made him a star at the University of Tennessee and with the Indianapolis Colts was pretty much shot. Manning was a game manager at the end, and barely that, but he had enough left to help what was a great team on both sides of the ball get across the finish line.
So, maybe that’s how it’ll end for Tom Brady, whenever he decides to pack it in, wherever he lands now that he has bid final adieu to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots: with head held high.
In a Los Angeles Chargers uniform, trying to make that franchise matter in a city that hasn’t embraced it since it arrived from San Diego, playing second banana to the Rams with a team that couldn’t win with Philip Rivers, who was no slouch.
In a Tampa Bay Bucs uniform, playing for a franchise that has struggled to find an identity since Jon Gruden packed up and left, joining a great offensive mind in Bruce Arians, taking over a team that might well have made the playoffs last year if Jameis Winston had managed to stop throwing so many balls to the opposition. [Editor’s note: Brady is reportedly expected to join the Buccaneers, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.]
Or somewhere else.
If Brady was 32 years old, this would be a fascinating experiment, a chance to see just how much of the magic in the Belichick-Brady pairing belonged to each. The coach and QB were the only two points of continuity in what will be forever remembered as the greatest team-sports dynasty of the cap era. All of it defied logic, beginning with the elevation of an unheralded sixth-round draft pick when Drew Bledsoe went down with injury during the 2001 season. Even after that first Super Bowl, there was good reason to wonder whether it was sustainable, whether it had been a fluke, and how much of a part the quarterback had actually played in that championship.
The team they took down that year, the St Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, was what a cutting-edge offence looked like in the early days of the 21st Century. Brady was named the Super Bowl MVP, but no one was mistaking him for gunslinging Kurt Warner after going a modest 16-for-27 for 145 yards. The next season, the Pats missed the playoffs.
What came afterwards was, even in hindsight, unfathomable: a constantly evolving group of players and assistant coaches and front-office personnel; everyone disposable even in a star-driven era; no one bigger than the team. With that ever-shifting cast of characters, only Brady and Belichick were givens, their continuing success a tribute to their collective abilities and collective brilliance.
Now, we will get to see them apart for the first time in 18 years, though for Brady, at age 42, it won’t really be a fair test. In the second half of last season, he seemed physically diminished, unable to put the ball exactly where he wanted it on command, a half-beat slow on some of his reads, incapable of lifting a not-great roster — a challenge that was never beyond him in the past.
It’s hard to imagine this Brady as a saviour somewhere else, though maybe he could pull a talented club like Tampa together. It’s also hard to see him making a franchise like the Chargers more meaningful long-term, because even though he says that he wants to play to age 45, there can’t be much runway left.
When someone else lines up behind centre for Belichick’s Patriots, it will be fascinating to find out if the magic is transferable, if a coach who made Matt Cassel, Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo look instantly competent when they stepped in as Brady’s backup can do the same for someone like the unheralded Jarrett Stidham.
When Brady runs out onto the field in a strange uniform, when he awaits the snap and surveys what lies before him with that familiar Tom Brady look, it will be disorienting, but save the sadness.
He leaves on his own terms. He continues because he chooses to.
His career coda might yet be a grace note.