Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM says Tom Brady's decision to retire 'didn't completely shock us'

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said the team's two years with quarterback Tom Brady, which began as covert free-agency pursuit under the code name "Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson" and culminated in Super Bowl and NFC South titles, "an unbelievable fairy-tale story we'll be talking about forever."

Licht described two phone calls as being on opposite ends of the spectrum: The first one two years ago, when Brady informed him he was coming to Tampa Bay, the GM said the "room was spinning a little bit." The second, when Brady called him late Monday night to inform him of his decision to retire, was understandably somber.

Brady's decision to retire "didn't completely shock us," Licht said, and the organization had been preparing for the possibility, even though the news broke Saturday before Brady called team leaders to inform them of his decision. Licht has been in discussion with Brady's agents, Don Yee and Steve Dubin, to discuss his departure -- as Brady is still technically under contract next season -- but those conversations have gone well, and Licht said they will "be able to work that out" without issue.

"We're just extremely happy that he chose us," Licht said Tuesday night. "We have a lot of gratitude toward him for what he's done for this organization and for this fan base."

The Bucs had already begun exploring contingency plans for the quarterback position when the season ended, but now that Plan B becomes their primary one.

"It's a little bit of a different landscape than it was a couple of years ago with the quarterbacks that were available in free agency," Licht said. "We'll have to go down every avenue. We'll have to turn over every stone. I hate to use clichés like that, but we will."

The team is encouraged by what it's seeing in the development of rookie second-round pick Kyle Trask, who was inactive for every game this season as he learned behind Brady and backups Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin.

Licht doesn't feel this speeds up Trask's development because he's comfortable with the player's current trajectory. But the team will explore free agency, and Licht even discussed the possibility of a trade, although he tempered expectations -- as there are more teams in need of quarterbacks this year than there are high-quality players available at the position in the draft and free agency, versus when Brady became a free agent in 2020.

"It seems easy to fans to feel like we can go ahead and offer a trade to bring a great quarterback in here, but the teams you're talking to are then going to be looking for a quarterback," Licht said. "No one wants to be in a position where they don't have a quarterback, and we feel very fortunate.

"We're not crowning Kyle as the heir apparent yet, but we feel very fortunate that we got him when we did last year because of where he stacks up with quarterbacks in this year's draft. Everybody's going to have their own opinion, but I feel pretty good about where he stacks up with these quarterbacks. So, I feel like we made a good decision last year."

Licht said he's not concerned that potential free agents will no longer want to come to a Tampa Bay without Brady, citing the fact that seven of the team's nine Pro Bowlers are under contract. He also believes that free agents got a glimpse of the kind of culture the Bucs have and that Tampa is an appealing place to live.

"If Tom chose us, I think that will continue to help other players to make their decision to come to Tampa as well, because we have a lot of very good players and an unbelievable coaching staff," Licht said.

"We're losing a legend in Tom -- and no one wants to lose a legend -- but the lessons that he's provided with these guys with just his actions and his leadership -- along with our head coach, who we still have -- are going to continue to lead our team and continue to build on it. We're going to have continued success because of it. I'm confident in that."

Licht has not spoken yet to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who said two weeks ago that even if Brady did retire, he would be open to returning. Last week, however, Gronkowski told TMZ that if he was forced to make a decision right now, he would lean toward not coming back.

With O.J. Howard is set to become an unrestricted free agent, Cameron Brate is the team's only tight end under contract for the 2022 season.

"I don't think it's going to be dependent on whether Tom came back or not, from what I understand. And I know that Rob had an incredible experience here as well," Licht said. "He was a big factor in us having the success that we had. We would welcome Rob back with open arms, but we're giving him his space right now to decide on what he wants to do."

Gronkowski on Wednesday took to social media to post his appreciation for Brady, his longtime teammate with the New England Patriots as well as the Bucs.

"This football journey with you has been nothing short of special," Gronkowski posted to Twitter. "Thank you for your dedication to the game, putting the team in the best possible position to win every year, all the records that were broken, the Super Bowls, the memories, and your friendship through the last 12 years. ... You're a legend and always will be.