As we told you in this space a month ago, it’s over for Brady in Tampa Bay. That has been clear to those close to him for a while, and even within the Buccaneers’ organization there’s a growing sense the franchise and roster will be reshaped, now two years removed from a Super Bowl win. Brady had mounting frustration and consternation about Tampa Bay’s offense in recent months, along with philosophical differences with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich — who was fired Thursday — dating from last season. Nothing got much better down the stretch despite an NFC South title.
The Bucs either rallied to score just enough points to win by using their hurry-up offense, battling the clock in the fourth quarter to steal several victories, or they didn’t and lost — often to teams that didn’t do much damage this season. (Five of Tampa Bay’s nine losses came against teams that missed the playoffs.) It’s a difficult script to replicate week after week, let alone year after year, with the worst running game in the NFL, a decaying roster and the head coach Brady signed to play with (Bruce Arians) no longer in that role.
Consider this bizarro Brady reality: He was the NFL’s 27th-ranked quarterback in the first three quarters of games this season, completing 66 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns, six interceptions and an 86.9 rating — tucked between Davis Mills and Russell Wilson. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady was the league’s eighth-best quarterback among qualified passers, completing 68 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns, just three picks and a 98.7 rating.
The consensus among personnel people I have surveyed regarding Brady all season is that the end is getting near. Brady, who turns 46 in August, might have a bit left, but his age is starting to show. “He’s still a starter in the league,” said one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because tampering regulations preclude him from talking publicly about players on other rosters, “but maybe not the top half anymore.” Still, Brady’s guile, experience and presence have value, and those who have faced him for years certainly don’t think he’s bowing out yet.
“He’s going to keep playing,” another GM said. “I just don’t know where.”
Of course, this would be no ordinary negotiation. Brady will do a team-friendly deal. He will prioritize winning and will seek to duplicate the odds-defying trick he pulled off his first year with Tampa Bay — amid a season-altering and life-changing pandemic, no less — and hoist a Lombardi Trophy in his first season with a new organization. He will call the shots, and there are only certain cities where he would want to play, certain coaches he would want to play for and certain rosters that will be up to his standards. That much we know.
In the past few weeks, it has become clear that the NFL’s quarterback carousel might indeed swing wildly again, with Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill among the veterans possibly on the move via trade. That’s to say nothing of recent top picks such as Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance, who have distinguished themselves to varying degrees with the teams that drafted them and also could be on the move.
Again, there are only a handful of potential matches that would seem to meet enough of the criteria to land Brady, and even then the team in question would have to want him as well. Here are four possible landing spots that have bubbled up most often as executives around the league attempt to size up Brady’s next move:
Las Vegas Raiders
Some executives who have had contact with Raiders Coach Josh McDaniels believe he is inclined to want a strong veteran around next season, not just a rookie passer. Rodgers would make sense, but Brady played better and is clearly better versed in McDaniels’s offense. Sure, the Raiders could use another offensive lineman or two, but the roster is loaded with pass catchers and they could always place the franchise tag on Josh Jacobs, who led the NFL in rushing.
Brady knows McDaniels’s system inside and out from their shared time in New England, where they went through the best of times together. The city and the dome also would suit him well. One general manager pointed out that former Raiders coach Jon Gruden rebuffed Brady’s overtures when the quarterback was extricating himself from New England: “I don’t think he’d hold a grudge against [owner] Mark Davis for that, do you?” the GM asked. “It might be the best option for him.”
San Francisco 49ers
No one outside of San Francisco’s coaching staff saw this Brock Purdy thing coming, and even as high as some 49ers staffers were on Mr. Irrelevant, he has to be exceeding their expectations. No quarterback has a better rating than Purdy since he took over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. And the first round of the playoffs was no match for him, either. The 49ers have so much invested in Lance, but he has barely played football since high school and if anything they need another veteran in the mix, not an upstart.
Coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to trade for Brady in the past, but that was a long time ago, and if Purdy goes deep in the playoffs he has to be given a shot to start next year, right? Still, this is Tom Brady, potentially wanting to finish his career playing for the team he grew up supporting. And he’s not going anywhere to be a backup. It’s complicated, but then again, the quarterback position always seems to be tricky in San Francisco.
GM Chris Grier was effusive in his support for Tua Tagovailoa as his starting quarterback for 2023 and rightfully so. But a transaction like this could be over his head, and if owner Stephen Ross wants Brady — again — then Grier, who like Brady has deep New England ties, will be charged with making it happen. “If Ross gets fixated on this, Grier won’t have a choice,” as one general manager put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Dolphins already lost a first-round pick for tampering in an attempt to land Brady. The offense is loaded. And Tagovailoa’s succession of concussions obviously raises his risk in the short and long term. Brady has wanted to play for the Dolphins in the past, according to some close to him, and it would be a delicious proposition getting to face Bill Belichick twice each season in the AFC East.
It’s a long shot, but say the Ravens trade Jackson, and the warm-weather destinations don’t materialize. Despite all of the Ravens’ massive offensive shortcomings, they present the opportunity for a veteran quarterback to be protected by a strong offensive line and a premier running game, with an elite defense, too. Brady wouldn’t have to worry about throwing 66 times per game in Baltimore.
With offensive coordinator Greg Roman having stepped down, the Ravens could install a Brady-friendly offense and land a veteran receiver such as DeAndre Hopkins in a trade — or a top young wideout as part of the compensation for Jackson. It wasn’t pretty when Peyton Manning finally landed his second Lombardi Trophy late in his career with the Denver Broncos — after losing his job to Brock Osweiler for a spell — and while winning Super Bowl 50 by a 24-10 score wasn’t ideal, winning is winning. I can’t see Brady playing for someone without a true head coaching pedigree such as the Jets’ Robert Saleh — though owner Woody Johnson covets Brady — and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh has one title already to his name. This seems a stretch, but crazier things have happened.
Other teams will surely be linked to Brady, but I don’t think they make the cut.
The New Orleans Saints have a significant cap and cash crunch, and playing for a defensive-minded coach is not where Brady is at. Executives I have talked to think the Tennessee Titans are more headed for a rebuild than a Super Bowl run. (Maybe if they had kept A.J. Brown?) New England fans cling to hopes of a reunion, but the Patriots’ roster right now looks as bleak as the one Brady fled. The Carolina Panthers don’t have a head coach, for starters, and they need a long-term solution at quarterback, not a rental. Brady won’t see that as a franchise on the cusp.