TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht had a hunch it was coming.
It was Super Bowl Sunday last February, and he had been celebrating his birthday at home with family when he glanced down at his phone and saw a text message from quarterback Tom Brady, who had made his retirement official 12 days earlier.
"You could feel the passion, that's for sure," Licht told ESPN on Friday. "I just told [my wife] Blair, 'He's really into this game. You can tell he wishes he was playing in this game. I don't -- I don't think the fire is out.'"
Brady wanted to talk about the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams, who narrowly defeated the Bucs in the divisional round of the playoffs three weeks earlier. That loss ended one of Brady's greatest statistical seasons ever at age 44.
When Licht told reporters two weeks later at the NFL combine, "We'll leave a light on" for the seven-time Super Bowl champ, he knew there was a good chance Brady would be back.
Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen had gotten the same feeling Facetiming with Brady while watching him do household chores as he transitioned into life after the NFL, but he wasn't sure if it was just his own wishful thinking.
"I was kind of suspect," Christensen said. "I just kind of always had a feeling that 'Hey, this guy's not quite done playing football,' and he played so well last year."
"Unfinished Business," as Brady called it, has brought him back to football for a 23rd season. When he takes the field against the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC) he'll become the first quarterback in NFL history to start a game at age 45. Even more unfathomable is that it comes on the heels of an MVP-caliber season.
But on the precipice of the 2022 season, Brady took an unprecedented 11-day break -- unheard of for any player in training camp, let alone a starting quarterback -- to tend to what have been described as "personal things."
"I'm 45 years old, man," Brady said. "There's a lot of s--- going on."
An air of mystery will follow Brady into the season, both in terms of his on-field prospects and the notion of when the future Hall of Famer will hang it up ... for real this time. With that in mind, ESPN's team of NFL reporters and analysts answered the biggest questions surrounding Brady as he embarks on his third season in Tampa. -- Jenna Laine
Why didn't Brady's retirement stick?
"I fell in love with this sport when I was a young kid, and I think there is still a great love for it," Brady said in June. "I think I always will unfortunately ..."
Brady's longtime personal throwing coach and friend Dr. Tom House wrote an entire PhD thesis on the difficulties professional athletes face when letting go. He coined it "the terminal adolescent syndrome," arguing that because a professional athlete's identity is forged with his sport at such a young age, assimilating back into mainstream society is often very difficult.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman added, "When I got out, I remember people would ask me, 'Hey, do you miss it? Do you miss playing?' And, and I would say, 'I don't miss playing. I miss winning.' I miss playing those big games. You know, I miss playing the championship game. I miss playing the Super Bowls, but to just play -- that wasn't a lot of fun."
That's where Brady may differ.
"He loves the process as much as he loves the game. He's just in love with the whole process that goes along with football," Licht said, adding that each week Brady has his own meeting with the pro scouting department to go over opponent personnel, sometimes bringing in notes on players from 15 years ago.
"I think he's gone on record saying he's got a sickness, he just loves to throw the ball," Licht said. - Laine
Where does this Bucs roster rank among Brady's best ever, going back to New England?
Last year for ESPN, I did a ranking of Tom Brady's best supporting casts ever and came out with the 2020 Buccaneers ranked second behind only the 16-0 Patriots of 2007. The 2021 Buccaneers were just as strong, but this year's supporting cast would have to rank lower than last year's.
Russell Gage is a talented receiver; to put up a positive receiving DVOA in last year's Atlanta offense is an impressive feat. But Gage is certainly no Hall of Fame candidate like Antonio Brown, who was still giving a prime performance before he self-destructed for last year's Buccaneers.
The real step down is on the offensive line. Shaq Mason is a reasonable replacement for Ali Marpet, but Ryan Jensen, who will miss the entire season with a knee injury, was a perennial All-Pro candidate at center. We have to assume that a rookie, even a highly drafted one such as Luke Goedeke, will have some struggles and not play as well as solid veteran Alex Cappa did at left guard last season.
I would probably rank this Buccaneers supporting cast seventh in Brady's career, behind last year's Buccaneers as well as the five teams featured in my article from a year ago. -- Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders
What's your stat line projection for Brady going into the season?
My projection is 4,535 passing yards, 34 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
Brady is coming off a season in which he attempted 719 passes, second-most in a regular season in NFL history. He also paced the league in dropbacks (749), completions (485), passing yards (5,316) and touchdown passes (43). It's only reasonable to expect less pass volume this season, especially with Bruce Arians out as coach.
Brady's yards per attempt projection (7.1) is down slightly as well, which makes sense when you consider he lost Gronkowski and Brown as targets and could be without receiver Chris Godwin for a game or two.
Even with a projected dip in every passing category, Brady still checks in first in attempts, second in yards and third in touchdowns in 2022. At the end of the day, the Tampa Bay offense runs through Brady. He is in for another highly productive statistical campaign. - Mike Clay
What are executives around the league saying about Brady's 2022 season?
Many around the league wondered if Tom Brady's arm was done after his final season in New England. Two years, 83 passing touchdowns and a Super Bowl later, those same executives won't make that same mistake.
"You just can't count him out," an NFC exec said. "I think that last year in New England had trouble protecting him, and his receiver weapons weren't great. Now he's got plenty of weapons, and he's well-protected. And he wins with his mind before the snap so any diminished arm strength doesn't show up like it would with others."
That's why most around the league expect Brady to have another strong season, which complicates his 2023 outlook as a free agent. Some wonder whether Brady, no matter how great, will have a tougher time committing to the game after his brief retirement this offseason and his 11-day absence from Bucs camp.
Then there's the looming commitment to Fox as an NFL analyst. As multiple execs pointed out, Brady gets leeway he never had under Bill Belichick, and even though he's earned that, a new team might not want the headache. - Jeremy Fowler
Is 2022 going to be Brady's final season?
I can't see him playing beyond this season. As it is, it's been a weird year for Brady, and there's still the entire football schedule to go. For more than two decades, he's been a study in clarity and reliability, both in terms of his play and in terms of his plans. But along with his unprecedented longevity has come unprecedented awkwardness -- for Brady anyway.
There were the signs that he was so obviously unhappy with Tampa under Bruce Arians, even if he adored the coach personally. There was his retirement, then waffling on it within a week. There was his return, and Arians' move to the executive suite.
There was his massive post-playing broadcasting contract. There was the tampering that led to the suspension of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and minority owner Bruce Beal. And finally, there was his arrival to training camp, then 11-day break.
None of this should affect him as a player in a game that he has long come as close to mastering as we've seen from a quarterback. But it's fair to wonder: Where's his head, as he enters his 23rd season at age 45?
Since late last season, he's seemed like a man who's tired of being pulled in so many directions, even if he created it all. It's very understandable, and relatable for any driven person in their mid-40s, but still points to his life, as it is, being unsustainable.
For years, Brady has talked about the widening gap in his life, between the requirements of how he approaches and plays the game and how he serves as a parent, husband, son, friend and businessman, so much that the gap has come to define him as much as anything else.
It widens each year, and after this season, the game will be the thing that finally gives out. -- Seth Wickersham