Tom Brady returns from retirement: How the Buccaneers, NFC, and NFL’s QB market are changed by his comeback

Well, it happened. After refusing to close the door on a potential comeback in the weeks following his announced retirement, Tom Brady blew the doors right off the hinges Sunday night, abruptly revealing he will return to the Buccaneers for a 23rd NFL season. Already, Bucs executives, including coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht, are celebrating Brady’s homecoming as the fuel for “another championship run.” Brady himself, meanwhile, has pledged to handle “unfinished business,” even though he already owns a record seven Super Bowl titles.

While Brady has nothing more to prove, who cares if he has to manufacture motivation as a means of playing the game he loves? At 44, he’s literally at the top of his Hall of Fame game, fresh off maybe the best season of his career. There was no good football reason for him to hang it up in the first place. With decent protection, he still offers top-five passing production at worst, and that alone is enough to keep the Bucs in the title conversation (and keep boosting his status as the greatest of all time).

Speaking of boosting the Bucs, Brady’s return certainly confirms him as the biggest story in the NFL for 2022. But the fact he’s stepping back on the field probably means more for others than it does him. Consider the two primary ripple effects of the ageless TB12 swerving out of retirement and back under center:

The Buccaneers are back on top

Is it a coincidence Brady announced his return the day before the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Tampa Bay’s biggest free agents otherwise would’ve entered the market with no clue as to the team’s QB plans post-Brady. Now, they have a supersized reason to consider a discount and stick around for a team in a tough financial spot. Some, like cornerback Carlton Davis, may bolt for monster paydays regardless. But don’t think for a second that others, like center Ryan Jensen or tight end Rob Gronkowski or pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, won’t now think long and hard about re-signing.

In the bigger picture, the Bucs also go from a potential rebuild right back to the playoff picture thanks to Brady’s return. Not all QBs — even good ones — are capable of swaying expectations so much. With little cap room, Tampa Bay may have settled for a mid-tier free agent to compete with Blaine Gabbert and/or Kyle Trask at QB. Even a big swing for a Pro Bowler like Derek Carr wouldn’t have guaranteed title contention. With Brady, a Super Bowl hunt is innate. His influence, not to mention his somehow-ascending arm talent, is unmatched. And his supporting cast only figures to get healthier after an injury-riddled 2021.

The NFC South was set to be wide open, with Sean Payton exiting the cap-strapped and QB-less Saints, the Falcons doubling down on an expensive Matt Ryan despite a holey roster, and the Panthers still desperately in search of a franchise QB while wielding an equally porous offensive line. Now? It’s the Bucs’ to lose, easily. And that’s not even accounting for the rest of the NFC, where the Rams may struggle to retain their Super Bowl lineup, the Packers could be down to their last hurrah with Aaron Rodgers, the Cowboys have shuffled parts to save money, the 49ers are preparing to pass the baton at QB, and the Seahawks just shipped away Russell Wilson. The AFC is loaded with young stars under center. The NFC is Brady’s if he wants it.

The QB market is in flux

Brady’s return hasn’t just shifted the power dynamics in the NFC. It’s also thrown the entire 2022 QB market into a tizzy. Again, the Bucs may have otherwise settled for a stopgap signal-caller, what with Arians lamenting the lack of affordably available big names, but they were logical suitors for embattled Texans QB Deshaun Watson, who’s reportedly warranting immense interest after avoiding criminal charges stemming from alleged sexual misconduct. Now, with Brady back on the same night the Vikings extended Kirk Cousins and a day after the Falcons restructured Matt Ryan, all of a sudden Watson’s market — while strong — has shrunk, perhaps leaving the Browns, Eagles, Panthers, Saints and Seahawks to fight for his services.

In addition to Watson, every other big-name possibility for the Bucs is now off the table: Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, etc. On the plus side for teams in dire need of their own QB, those veterans could/will still be available (some are more exciting than others, obviously). It’s still possible Tampa Bay could add a QB in the draft, but it seems more probable they’ll punt on the position altogether; luring Brady back means you’re all in for 2022, the future be damned, and Arians may end up hanging it up if Brady retires (again) come 2023, leaving the long-term QB decisions to the next staff.

Watson feels like the final big QB domino to fall before teams resort to bridge options and lock in on the draft, but Brady’s sudden change of heart both clarifies and muddies the entire picture. On one hand, as noted, Watson’s market is now down a suitor, perhaps bringing us closer to another blockbuster move. On the other, it may restore new fear in teams around the NFC, who may have been willing to mortgage the future for a 2022 QB upgrade but now face the prospect of going through Brady again. More than that, no one really calculated for Brady to be one of the 32 starters, at least entering free agency, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the Bucs’ own offseason approach — now sure to be aggressive — will affect the competition.

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