TAMPA, Fla. – Almost six weeks after announcing his retirement from the NFL, and on the eve of an NFL free agency that threatens to dismantle a Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster that was nearly completely intact last season after their 2020 Super Bowl championship, quarterback Tom Brady announced he will return for a 23rd season for “unfinished business.”
That business would include making another run at a championship after leading the NFL in just about every major statistical category at the age of 44 and coming within a breath of beating the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional round before the Rams kicked a last-second field goal.
While several NFL teams find themselves in a bind this offseason with demand exceeding supply at the quarterback position, Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who said two weeks ago at the NFL combine that they’d “leave a light on” for Brady, said they’ll “move forward with their offseason plans to reload this roster for another championship run.”
Without Brady, the Bucs faced tough odds with their roster and no clear starter at quarterback. While Licht and coach Bruce Arians said at the combine last year’s second-round draft pick Kyle Trask would compete for the starting job, members of the coaching staff said privately they did not believe Trask, who spent the 2021 season leading the scout team and focusing on mechanics and improving his body composition, was prepared to take over.
Now, he doesn't have to be and the Bucs have to try and enter the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes. The Bucs had been monitoring the Houston Texans quarterback the past few days since he was cleared of all charges by a grand jury, but they didn’t feel optimistic about the situation.
It would have been out of character for them to spend a large number of draft picks on a trade, something they haven’t done since acquiring coach Jon Gruden prior to winning Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.
The first domino fell Sunday night when center Ryan Jensen agreed to a three-year deal worth $39 million with $23 million guaranteed. Jensen will make an average of $13 million per year, but he could have gotten $14 or $15 million on the open market. Brady called Jensen Sunday afternoon to let him know he was returning, which started the wheels turning.
The Bucs had already applied the franchise tag to wide receiver Chris Godwin right before Tuesday's deadline struck, ensuring they'd have one of Brady's favorite targets back for at least one more year.
They still face tough odds to retain some of their talent, though, with tight end Rob Gronkowski, cornerback Carlton Davis, right guard Alex Cappa, safety Jordan Whitehead, running back Leonard Fournette, defensive linemen William Gholston and Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul all set to become unrestricted free agents when legal tampering opens at noon ET on Monday.
But the lure of competing for a title and doing so with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time is what allowed the Bucs to return all 22 starters from their Super Bowl roster last offseason and could lead some players to once again take less, as Brady has consistently done throughout his career. Licht and Arians have said on multiple occasions, though, they won’t be able to bring back everyone.
Placing left guard Ali Marpet on the retirement list and restructuring Vita Vea’s contract has allowed the Bucs to create slightly more salary cap space in recent days. They’re still in the red, roughly $3 million over the cap, and have until Wednesday to get there.
Brady's return means he will get the retirement tour he said he didn’t want, and he’ll have to do it with one of the toughest schedules of any team in the league. The actual dates won’t be announced until April, but in addition to their NFC South opponents, the Bucs will face the Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens next season, and one of their games will be played in Germany.
Brady can now fulfill his quest to play until age 45, something he has previously said was a personal benchmark. That was the age major league baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan, whom Brady has often been compared to because of longevity, decided to call it a career after 27 years.
It’s also important to note Brady would not be able to do this without the support of his family. They were a key reason Brady retired in the first place and he posted a picture of them when making his unretirement announcement on Instagram, where he wrote, “I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. Without them, none of this is possible.”