The debates on sports talk shows and in barbershops about who is the greatest football player of all time will always start with Tom Brady. He is the most accomplished player in N.F.L. history, with two decades of dominance over the sport. But along with all of the exclamation points — seven Super Bowl titles! five Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Awards! — Brady’s career also now carries a question mark:
Should he have come back for one last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after initially retiring last year?
Brady, who announced his retirement again on Wednesday, saying he meant it this time, did not have the kind of year, either on the field or off, that he had been used to when he returned to the Buccaneers at age 45. His season and his career ended in a 31-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in an N.F.C. wild-card game last month, but things had started to unravel long before that.
Because of his style as a pocket passer (even early in his career he was not a scrambler), Brady relied heavily on having a talented offensive line that could give him time to find open receivers. The Buccaneers had built one of the best offensive lines in the league. But before this season, guard Alex Cappa bolted for the Bengals in free agency, guard Ali Marpet retired and center Ryan Jensen suffered a knee injury in training camp that sidelined him for the regular season.
Brady himself missed 11 days in training camp to attend to what Coach Todd Bowles called “some personal things.” His absence generated speculation about Brady and his relationship with the former model Gisele Bündchen. In October, the couple divorced after 13 years of marriage, one day after the Buccaneers’ fifth loss in six games.
Throughout the season, the Buccaneers’ offense struggled to score and Brady threw for just 25 touchdowns, tied for the fifth-worst total of his career as a full-time starter. Brady had never hidden his frustrations with a struggling offense, whether while playing with the New England Patriots or Tampa Bay, sometimes slamming tablet computers on the sideline or yelling at linemen.
This year, Brady turned to a new tactic when frustrated: tripping or kicking defensive players. Brady kicked Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett at the end of a play in a Week 5 win and was fined $11,139 by the N.F.L. In the postseason loss to Dallas, Brady tried to slide tackle Cowboys safety Malik Hooker. (The slide tackle, illegal in football, is allowed in soccer.) The N.F.L. fined Brady $16,444. He planned to appeal because, he said on his podcast, “I didn’t even hit him. I tried to trip him, but I didn’t.”
The problems off the field continued. Brady endorsed FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange that collapsed last year. Many of the millions of people who lost money expressed some animus toward Brady and other celebrity endorsers. Brady himself was a major shareholder in FTX, according to a court document, and his stake went from tens of millions of dollars to virtually zero.
“I sure don’t feel bad for him,” said Lee Smith, a retired tight end whom the Patriots drafted before he played 11 seasons with Buffalo, Oakland, and Atlanta. “Maybe his crypto losses I feel the worst for him on. And his family stuff because, once again, man, the guy’s a human being. He’s not a robot.”
Brady’s human vulnerability caught up with him. Getting hit by abnormally large men is a part of a quarterback’s job description, but in his final year Brady seemed afraid to face that, which was perhaps understandable given his age. Whether because of fear, pressure in the pocket, or both, he made throws into the ground to avoid hits and threw a costly interception in the season-ending loss to the Cowboys. This year’s Buccaneers finished with the worst record (8-9) of any team for which Brady was the full-time starter in his N.F.L. career. And the Buccaneers were only in the playoffs because their division, the N.F.C. South, was the worst in the N.F.L.
Pundits stopped bloviating about how great Brady was for his age and insisting he could play into his 50s, as they did when he retired the first time, and began begging him to quit.
“You out here looking like somebody that’s stealing money,” Marcus Spears, a former N.F.L. defensive lineman who is now an ESPN personality, said on a podcast. He added: “Bro, go home, bro. Go home. Figure out something else to do. I know it’s Tom Brady. I know it’s the G.O.A.T. You scared to get hit, and you play football. Those two things don’t align.”
Many debated whether Brady, who was a free agent after the 2022 season, would sign with another team. The San Francisco 49ers, his favorite team as a child in the Bay Area, seem to be a good quarterback away from a Super Bowl appearance. The Las Vegas Raiders have Brady’s longtime offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, as their head coach and many talented offensive players.
“Honestly, after watching tonight’s game, who would want Tom Brady starting on their team next year?” Ryan Clark, a former N.F.L. defensive back who works as an ESPN personality, wrote on Twitter after the Buccaneers’ loss to the Cowboys.
So was coming back in 2022 worth it for Brady? He will likely answer that one day on his podcast or on a Fox broadcast, where he will be a commentator. Brady wasn’t terrible in his final season; he threw for the third-most passing yards in the league and the sixth-highest total of his career. But he was clearly not the player he once was, nor did he have a championship-level team around him. So Brady’s career, which had played out like the perfect Hollywood movie, came to what seemed to be an unsettling end.
“All of us have to go out on our terms, or we won’t be happy, and most of us don’t get to leave on our own terms,” said Smith, who retired after the 2021 season, his 11th in the N.F.L. “They make that decision for you. So I think that it was worth it because he gets to have the closure that he walked away when he was supposed to.”