As if a Tom Brady-Patrick Mahomes matchup in Super Bowl LV wasn’t enticing enough, imagine how much more dramatic the backdrop would have been had Brady not spilled the beans about his future.
Think about it: The possibility that this might be Brady’s last game before walking off into his NFL sunset, assured that — win or lose — he’d be considered the greatest player of all time and would own championship records no one could conceivably approach. Even the 25-year-old Mahomes, the greatest quarterback in today’s game, would have to come close to equaling Brady’s longevity by playing well into his 40’s to realistically have a chance at Brady’s Super Bowl hardware.
But no, even at age 43, Brady remains as addicted to the game, as addicted to winning, as he was when he won his first Super Bowl after the 2001 season and launched a career unequaled by anyone.
Brady could have offered the tantalizing possibility that this matchup of the quarterback of the ages against the quarterback of the present and foreseeable future would be his last.
Not a chance.
Instead of floating the possibility Super Bowl LV might be his last game, Brady floated the idea of playing not just one more season, but two more. At least two more.
Asked during the week if he’d ever thought about playing past age 45, Brady said, "I would definitely consider that. It’s a physical sport, and the perspective I have on that is you never know when that moment is, just because it’s a contact sport."
But every hint he offered during the week, every bread crumb he dropped about his future, pointed to Sunday’s game as being not his last, but another in a continuing quest for greatness not achieved by anyone else in his sport and by few in any sport. Heck, even coach Bruce Arians suggested there might be a Brady contract extension coming soon.
"I think I’ll know when it’s time [to retire]," Brady said. "I don’t know when that time will come, but I think I’ll know, and I’ll understand that I gave everything I could to get to this game. You put a lot into it. I don’t think I could ever go at this half-assed. I have to put everything into it."
He’ll know that when he doesn’t "feel like I can commit to the team in a way that the team needs me, then I think that’s probably time to walk away."
But that time doesn’t appear to be now.
Sure, Brady can change his mind in the coming weeks. But ask anyone who knows Brady and how he played in 2020, when he threw 40 touchdown passes in one of his best statistical seasons, they’ll tell you that as long as he feels he can play at this high a level, he’ll keep going.
And what higher level is there than leading your team to a Super Bowl?
That he led this team in this season this far is absolutely remarkable. He left the only NFL team and the only NFL coach he’d known the previous 20 seasons, but Brady did just fine without the Patriots and without Bill Belichick. Even at a time when Brady — perhaps the most resolute player ever in terms of preparation— had to get to know his new teammates with mostly virtual workouts until a truncated training camp began in August, he made the adjustment.
Yes, there were some bumps along the way — up to and including the time he lost track of downs in a midseason loss to the Bears. But Brady’s Bucs were unbeaten after their bye week and won three road playoff games to earn the right to play the biggest home game of the season — at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl LV. He has made history so often along the way, so why not add one more by becoming the first quarterback to play in his home stadium in a Super Bowl.
He has outlasted so many other greats. Peyton and Eli Manning. Philip Rivers. Most likely Drew Brees. Kurt Warner. Brett Favre. They have all retired, and Brady keeps going. Barring injury, there’s no chance he’ll outlast Mahomes, because he’ll lose that race to Father Time.
But this legacy will likely never be equaled by another quarterback — even Mahomes, who has a chance to dominate the NFL for the next decade.
Why keep going? Well, Brady offered a telling comment when we spoke after a Patriots' training camp practice about eight years ago as he approached what was, by traditional standards, a time when he might soon contemplate life after football. As he walked back to the locker room in the tunnel beneath Gillette Stadium, I asked how much longer he planned to keep playing. Brady looked over and said, "I don’t know what the hell else I’d do."
He knew it then, just as he knows it now. Outside of his family, there is nothing else that matters in his life than playing the game he loves.
The game he simply can’t quit.