It’s going to be incredibly strange watching Tom Brady wear a Tampa Bay Buccaneers helmet this fall.
More often than not, this is how things end for elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
Johnny Unitas played his final games for the San Diego Chargers. Joe Montana’s Hall of Fame career ended with the Kansas City Chiefs. Brett Favre took his last snap with the Minnesota Vikings. And even Brady’s most famous rival, Peyton Manning, capped his career with a Super Bowl championship for the Denver Broncos.
Brady wasn’t even the only multi-time Pro Bowl quarterback to change addresses Tuesday. Hours earlier, Philip Rivers agreed to a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts.
And 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton is on the trading block with the Carolina Panthers.
It’s a cruel business, and even the game’s most high-profile position isn’t immune from the carnage.
But it somehow feels different with Brady.
He played in nine Super Bowls – and won six – during an unprecedented 20-year career with the New England Patriots. If there was one superstar who was going to break this trend, the smart money was on Brady.
Instead, like so many retirees, he’ll leave the northeast behind to finish his playing days in the Sunshine State.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism, starting with Bruce Arians.
Perhaps the game’s most aggressive playcaller, Arians previously has coached the likes of Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. Now he’ll get a chance to help write the final chapters in Brady’s storied run.
The Bucs have an incredibly talented wide receiver duo in Mike Evans and Chris Goodwin, and they finished just outside of the NFC playoff race last season at 7-9.
Former starter Jameis Winston, who will now become a free agent, led the league with 5,109 passing yards and was second with 33 touchdowns in 2019. But he also threw an NFL-high 30 interceptions.
Brady might not match those prolific yardage and touchdown totals, but he’s almost a sure bet to throw far fewer picks.
Even with a limited arsenal after Rob Gronkowski retired, Josh Gordon again was suspended and Antonio Brown flamed out, Brady threw for 4,057 yards with 24 touchdowns and just eight picks last year.
The biggest dips came in his completion percentage (60.8, lowest since 2013) and yards per attempt (6.6, lowest since 2002). The latter is almost certain to rise.
Arians will emphasize the deep passing game, taking full advantage of Evans and Goodwin. As head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, he helped revive then 34-year-old Palmer’s career.
In five seasons with Arians, which included a pair of injury-riddled campaigns, Palmer posted a 38-21-1 overall record with 16,782 yards, 105 touchdowns and 57 interceptions. His yards-per-attempt average was 7.6, including a league-leading 8.7 in 2015.
Winston averaged a career-high 8.2 yards per attempt in his lone season with Arians and also threw a touchdown pass on a career-high 5.3% of his pass attempts.
But Brady is in uncharted waters.
Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, was just 25 last season. Palmer was 38 when he retired after playing just seven games in 2017.
Brady will be 43 when the regular season begins, but he has a chance to add to his already amazing legacy.
Tampa is scheduled to host Super Bowl 55, and Brady can become the first quarterback in league history to lead his team to the big game on its home field.
The fan base already is excited about the possibility. Even though the deal still hadn’t been officially announced, the Bucs’ website was jammed Tuesday with fans logging on to purchase season tickets.
It all just seems surreal.
Unitas had been benched by the Baltimore Colts before being traded to the Chargers in 1973. Injuries led Montana to be usurped by backup Steve Young – a fellow Hall of Famer — with the San Francisco 49ers before his trade to the Chiefs in 1993. Favre’s indecision about retirement led the Green Bay Packers to move forward with all-pro Aaron Rodgers and trade the franchise icon to the New York Jets in 2008. And Manning’s neck injury paved the way for the Colts to select Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012.
But, by all reports, leaving New England was Brady’s decision entirely.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft told ESPN on Tuesday the door was open and a deal could have been worked out if Brady had wanted to return. Instead, he’ll continue on in Tampa Bay.
In a world changing by the hour in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, the employer who will provide Brady’s next paycheck is of extremely little importance.
But, once life begins to return to whatever our new normal will be, the ripples of this week’s news will be felt throughout the NFL season.