Retirement to playoffs — Inside Tom Brady’s 22-23 Bucs season

Retirement to playoffs -- Inside Tom Brady's 22-23 Bucs season

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady stared at the floor, his face flushed, while his teammates slowly filed out of the locker room following their 27-22 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8. Backup quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen tried to comfort him, but he was inconsolable.

Standing 15 yards from Brady, right tackle Tristan Wirfs looked on and said, “I’d love to play with him forever. I love Tom. I wish everything was going as perfect as possible for him — if it is the last year for him.”

At 3-5, the Bucs had already suffered more losses than during their entire 2021 season. It was also the first time since 2002 that Brady had lost three straight games, and it all came crashing down in front of a national audience on a Thursday night. This wasn’t at all how Brady’s “Unfinished Business” tour was supposed to go when he ended his 40-day retirement to vie for another championship.

“We’ve struggled in pretty much everything,” Brady said that night. “I don’t think you can erase what happened the last eight weeks. We’ve got to dig deep, see what we’re all about, come to work, try to improve … and give ourselves a better chance to win.”

Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

Away from the field, Brady’s 13-year marriage was ending. The day after the loss to the Ravens, he finalized his divorce with Gisele Bundchen.

“You try to compartmentalize things and really focus on what your job is. And I think our team — there’s a lot of outside noise and I know people [say], ‘Tom, you should have retired. You should have done this, you should have done that.’ And that’s OK,” Brady said on his “Let’s Go!” podcast. … “For me, there’s always gratification when you make this commitment, and you have a group of individuals that do the same and you see something pay off.”

Fast forward to January, where Brady and the 8-9 Bucs managed to win the NFC South and squeak into the postseason. They are the fourth team in NFL history to win a division and the sixth to enter the playoffs with a losing record. It’s also the first time Brady has finished with a losing record in his 23 NFL seasons.

Yet none of that matters, as Brady makes his 14th consecutive trip to the playoffs Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN+) when Tampa Bay hosts the Dallas Cowboys — a team he’s 7-0 against, 2-0 as a Buccaneer.

“Tom is tough,” coach Todd Bowles said this week. “He’s been around for a long time. There’s not a lot he hasn’t seen or been through. I don’t think every day of his career has been a great day. He’s had some rough days here and there, but he works through them, he’s resilient … he led us out of a lot of things.”

After winning his seventh Super Bowl ring in his first season with the Bucs, Brady’s hopes for an eighth were shattered in the final seconds of the divisional round by the eventual champion, Los Angeles Rams, last season.

Acknowledging the long odds his team faces, Bowles said, “You really can’t worry about people counting you out. … We know we’ve been in the foxhole since we got to training camp, and we’re going to continue to stay in that foxhole and we’re going to fight our way out of it.”

Here’s the story of Brady’s season, from retirement to the playoffs and everything in between.

  • Feb. 1, 2022: Brady announces his retirement at age 44 after a “thrilling ride” and 22 seasons with Buccaneers and New England Patriots.

  • Feb. 13, 2022: Brady texts Bucs general manager Jason Licht during the Super Bowl between the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Licht turns to his wife, Blair, and says, “He’s really into this game. … I don’t think the fire is out.”

  • Feb. 23, 2022: Brady announces that he will produce and appear in a movie called “80 for Brady,” featuring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Sally Field, Billy Porter and Guy Fieri. Brady’s former Patriots teammates Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman also have cameos.

  • Feb. 27, 2022: Bucs Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet announces his retirement at 28. Marpet, who missed 12 games in seven seasons, had a 93.7% pass block win rate from 2018-21.

  • March 1, 2022: Licht tells the NFL Network at the NFL combine, “We’ll leave a light on. You always leave a light on for a guy like Tom Brady.”

  • March 13, 2022: Brady ends his retirement after 40 days. “These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands,” Brady said. “That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. Unfinished business LFG.”

THE TEXT MESSAGE came on March 28. Then-Bucs defensive coordinator Bowles was getting off a plane from New Jersey to North Carolina when he saw Bruce Arians had given him a buzz. It read, “Hit me back.”

Arians had been in West Palm Beach, Florida, for NFL owners meetings, but left after a few days because of what team officials said was a “personal matter.”

Bowles called Arians back.

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“Are you in town?” Arians asked.

“No, I’m in Charlotte,” Bowles said.

Arians told him, “I wanted to tell you in person, but I’m going to tell you over the phone. I’m going to step down, and you’ll be the next man up.”

Bowles said, “I looked at the phone and I said, ‘What?'”

Arians asked, “When can you get back?”

Bowles responded with a chuckle, “When do you need me? I’ve got floor seats to the [Charlotte] Hornets and the [Denver] Nuggets. I’m going to that. It’s a week off. I’m like, ‘Hey man, I’m going to the game. I’ll be back tomorrow.'”

“Initially I thought something was wrong with him,” Bowles said after he was hired. “And then the more I got to talking to him, the more we talked about it — he was at peace and he was perfectly fine. And this was his plan all along.”

Bruce Arians, right, hand picked Todd Bowles to be his successor when he stepped down in March as the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Will Vragovic/Getty Images

The timing raised eyebrows. A report emerged late in the 2021 season that Brady had become increasingly frustrated with Arians for changing offensive game plans that Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich had put together. Brady announced he was coming out of retirement March 13. Now Arians was stepping down to move into a front office role.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Leftwich said of the report. “That is not what [Arians] has ever done. The good thing about B.A. and him knowing me is I would struggle with that.”

A team source did not deny friction existed between Arians and Brady, but told ESPN it was exaggerated. Brady returning was not related to Arians’ retirement, according to the source, and Brady was aware of Arians’ plans to retire before the quarterback made his announcement.

Arians said he had been contemplating retirement. But when Brady announced he was retiring, Arians didn’t want to leave his coaching staff in a bind by essentially having to rebuild without a quarterback. Brady’s return allowed Arians to feel more comfortable stepping into a new role.

“I wanted to ensure when I walked away that Todd Bowles would have the best opportunity to succeed,” Arians said. “So many head coaches come into situations where they are set up for failure, and I didn’t want that for Todd.”

Brady said he “loved every minute” of having Arians as a coach.

“He’s a big reason why I came here. He’s just a great person, he’s a great leader, he’s obviously a great coach,” Brady said. “I have a great relationship with him. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

While Bowles would continue overseeing the defense and take on head-coaching duties, with Arians’ departure, Brady and Leftwich would have total ownership of the offense. In Brady’s possible last voyage, he’d be the one steering the ship.

  • May 10, 2022: Brady agrees to a 10-year deal reportedly worth $375 million with Fox Sports to become an analyst after he retires.

  • June 7, 2022: The Bucs begin their mandatory three-day minicamp without Gronkowski, the future Hall of Fame tight end who is still weighing his future.

  • June 9, 2022: When asked about what the conversation was like with his family when informing them he wanted to return for a 23rd season, Brady said, “I live a complex, tricky life … I’m just trying to navigate it the best way I can.” When asked if he feels like he’ll always need football to “feel happy and whole,” Brady said, “I think I always will,” adding that he believes when he does choose to retire for good, it “should be a smoother transition than I thought.”

  • June 21, 2022: Gronkowski announces his retirement: “I will now be going back into my retirement home, walking away from football again with my head held high knowing I gave it everything I had, good or bad, every time I stepped out on the field. The friendships and relationships I have made will last forever, and I appreciate every single one of my teammates and coaches for giving everything they had as well. From retirement, back to football and winning another championship and now back to chilling out, thank you to all.”

GRONKOWSKI WAS ON the receiving end of 10,575 passing yards and 105 touchdowns from Brady in the regular season and postseason combined.

“I don’t think you just put together a team and think that there’s another Gronk out there — there’s only one,” Brady said.

Gronkowski’s arrival in Tampa dramatically shifted the tight end’s role in the Bucs’ offense. In the year before his arrival, with Arians calling plays and Jameis Winston at quarterback, the tight end served more of a complementary role, with five touchdowns in 2019. With Gronkowski, Bucs tight ends averaged 11 touchdowns during the regular season, despite him missing five games in 2021.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski won four Super Bowl titles in 11 seasons together. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“You’d much rather play with a guy like Gronk than not, but he’s not here,” Brady said. “We’ve got to do other things and play to the strengths of the players that we have and not think that they were the [same] strengths last year, but reestablish those things. This is what football is all about.”

Since 2010 when Gronkowski joined Brady in New England, Brady’s career record (regular and postseason combined) with Gronkowski is 127-36 (.779) and 48-24 (.667) without him. His touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped from 3.92 (365-93) with him to 2.66 (117-44) without him. His quarterback rating (QBR) dropped from 74.0 with to 60.9 without.

In Tampa, Brady was 25-9 (.735) with Gronkowski and is 12-10 (.545) without.

Tom Brady in starts with/without Rob Gronkowski since 2010 (including playoffs)

With RG in Career Without RG in Career With RG in TB Without RG in TB
Starts 163 72 34 22
Record 127-36 48-24 25-9 12-10
Win pct. .779 .667 .735 .545
QBR 74.0 60.9 66.9 59.7
Comp pct. 65.7% 62.3% 65.9% 66.6%
YPA 7.76 6.75 7.49 6.57
TD-Int 3.92 (365-93) 2.66 (117-44) 3.32 (83-25) 3.17 (38-12)

“Their connection was one of the best we’ve ever seen,” wide receiver Mike Evans said.

Who would step up in Gronkowski’s absence? Gronkowski often joked he and Brady could finish each other’s thoughts.

“This is the first time Tom goes into a season where he doesn’t have a best buddy. Gronk was the last of his battle buddies,” Brady’s longtime throwing coach and friend Tom House said. … “It’s not that he can’t perform and it’s not that he’s physically unable to do something. … When he goes to the locker room, when he goes to the stadium, it’ll be a different feel [because] all his best buds have retired.”

Christensen said: “It is a work in progress for us not to have Gronk at all. We watch plays all the time — ‘Aww if that was Gronk, this would have happened.’ But it’s not Gronk so now we’ve got to adjust and we’ve got to fix it.”

  • July 26, 2022: The Bucs sign All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones to help account for the loss of Gronkowski’s catches.

  • July 28, 2022: Center Ryan Jensen, the first person Brady called when he returned from retirement, suffers a significant knee injury in training camp that effectively ends his regular season before it begins. “He’s really our enforcer when you think about it, of our offense,” Evans said at the time. “We’re gonna miss him a lot.”

  • Aug. 2, 2022: An NFL investigation finds Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross guilty of tampering, contacting Brady while he was under contract with the Patriots in 2019 and the Bucs in 2021.

  • Aug. 3, 2022: Brady celebrates his 45th birthday with a day off.

BRADY WAS NOTICEABLY absent from training camp practice on Aug. 11, having already missed two practices the previous week.

Bowles announced Brady would be taking an extended break — 11 days total. Brady traveled to the Bahamas during the excused absence, sources close to Brady confirmed. Bowles said Brady had to “deal with some personal things.”

Those “personal things” were likely related to his family.

For years, Bundchen wanted Brady to retire and expressed concern over Brady’s insistence on playing, which had become a source of tension throughout their marriage.

A Super Bowl LV postgame celebration video that aired in March 2021 on the “Late Late Show with James Corden” captured Bundchen and Brady embracing, with Bundchen asking Brady, “What more do you have to prove?”

Brady told Corden, “I just gave her a big hug. … I was trying to figure out a way to change the subject really quick.”

Bundchen declined to address rumors of marital discord in a September issue of Vanity Fair, but she told the publication she felt misunderstood and believed the public portrayal of her wanting Brady to retire was “sexist.”



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“Obviously, I have my concerns,” she told the magazine. “This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present. I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for [them]. He needs to follow his joy too.”

She also spoke about the realities of their marriage in British Vogue in June.

“I don’t think relationships just happen; it’s never the fairy tale people want to believe it is,” Bundchen told the magazine. “It takes work to be really in sync with someone, especially after you have kids. His focus is on his career, mine is mostly on the kids. And I’m very grateful that he lets me take the reins when it comes to our family. He trusts my decisions.”

When asked about his unexpected training camp hiatus, Brady said, “Everyone’s got different situations they’re dealing with. … We all have really unique challenges to our life. I’m 45 years old, man. There’s a lot of s— going on.”

Though Bundchen had tweeted, “Let’s go @TomBrady! Let’s go Bucs!” 26 minutes before the Bucs’ season opener at the Cowboys, she was absent from all of Brady’s home games in 2022 despite his parents and children attending. To date, it’s the last tweet she has sent out.

  • Sept. 11, 2022: The Bucs defeat the Cowboys 19-3 on the road in the season opener. Brady becomes the oldest quarterback to start a game at age 45, surpassing Steve DeBerg, who started for the Atlanta Falcons in 1998 at 44 years, 279 days old. Two receivers are hurt as Jones (knee) and Chris Godwin (hamstring) leave the game.

  • Sept. 12, 2022: One day after the victory, Brady said he’s “feeling more” emotions than he has in the past and he suspects that it’s because he’s nearing the end of his football career. “It’s not like I have 10 years left. I definitely don’t have that. So all these, I just am never gonna take for granted, you know?”

  • Sept. 21, 2022: Evans’ one-game suspension without pay is upheld on appeal and he is forced to miss the home opener against the Green Bay Packers. The wide receiver was suspended for his role in an altercation with New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

  • Sept. 25, 2022: The Bucs fall to the Packers in their home opener 14-12. Bundchen does not attend with the rest of Brady’s family and children. Jones and Godwin are inactive.

  • Sept. 26, 2022: With Hurricane Ian set to move over Florida’s west coast, the Buccaneers relocate to South Florida to prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs.

  • Oct. 2, 2022: The Bucs lose to the Chiefs on “Sunday Night Football” 41-31. Jones reinjures his knee. Godwin is inactive.

RECOGNIZING THEY COULDN’T replace Gronkowski’s production with one player, the Bucs had selected tight ends Cade Otton (fourth round) and Ko Kieft (sixth round) in the draft. They also signed veteran Kyle Rudolph.

Former All-Pro wide receiver Jones was brought on to help account for the downfield passing game and red zone production. They had also signed ex-Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage in free agency to help offset the loss of Antonio Brown and to buy Godwin more time in his recovery from a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, which he suffered near the end of the 2021 season.

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But Jones suffered a knee injury against the Cowboys in Week 1 and reinjured it against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4. He wouldn’t suit up again until Week 8. Gage suffered hamstring, back and ankle injuries.

“We know right now injuries have cost us a lot early on, offensively,” Bucs assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin said.

With the setbacks, Brady’s frustration began to show.

Against the Saints in Week 2, Brady failed to convert on third-and-8 on a deep pass from the Tampa Bay 45 to Scotty Miller as the Bucs trailed 3-0 with 11:01 to go in the third quarter.

Brady walked to the sideline and slammed his blue Surface tablet to the ground in disgust.

Brady and the Bucs would eventually defeat the Saints — Brady’s first regular-season victory at New Orleans as a Buccaneer — to start the year 2-0. But the offense — which scored at will in 2021 — couldn’t find the end zone. In 23 possessions in the first two games, the Bucs scored two offensive touchdowns.

Brady talks with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who has been under scrutiny this year with the lack of scoring by the Bucs. Tampa Bay finished 25th in scoring in the regular season. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

Bucs receivers missed a combined 17 games this season because of injury, illness or suspension, not including healthy scratches.

“Obviously with the injuries that you have, we can’t be what we were last year, going into the end of last year,” Leftwich said.

The Bucs’ ground game — integral in their Super Bowl run in 2020, particularly in the postseason — also went nowhere. On the season, the Bucs averaged a league-worst 76.9 rushing yards, compared to 98.4 in 2021 and 122.5 in the 2020 postseason. The Bucs lost three straight games — at the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers and home to the Ravens — scoring three total offensive touchdowns while surrendering eight in that span.

“We’re just not as good right now as we used to be, I guess,” Evans said. “I don’t know — [we’ve] just got to figure it out.”

  • Oct. 9, 2022: Despite suffering a shoulder injury on a strip sack against the Chiefs the previous week, Brady leads the Bucs past the Falcons at home 21-15.

  • Oct. 12, 2022: On his podcast, Brady admits he is “going through some things.”

  • Oct. 14, 2022: Brady attends the surprise wedding of Patriots owner Robert Kraft in New York.

  • Oct. 15, 2022: Brady misses a Saturday morning walk-through on the eve of the Steelers game, another absence excused by Bowles, who told reporters Brady was not receiving preferential treatment.

  • Oct. 16, 2022: The Bucs fall to 3-3, losing at Pittsburgh 20-18 despite the Steelers not having their three top cornerbacks or T.J. Watt. Brady was shown on TV directing an expletive-laden tirade at his offensive line during the loss. “I want nothing else from a quarterback than that — than the guy who’s wanting to tell us what we need to do and step up,” center Robert Hainsey said. “If he was just sitting over there and not get us going and not try to help us — he wouldn’t be who he is today.”

  • Oct. 23, 2022: The Bucs lose 21-3 at Carolina after the Panthers traded away running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson that week and fired coach Matt Rhule less than two weeks prior. “No one feels good about where we’re at, no one feels good about how we’ve played or what we’re doing,” Brady said postgame.

  • Oct. 27, 2022: The Bucs lose to the Ravens 27-22 at home on “Thursday Night Football,” to fall to 3-5. Brady had never been two games below .500 in his career. It is the Bucs’ fifth loss in six games.

LESS THAN 24 hours after the loss to the Ravens, Brady and Bundchen officially filed for and finalized their divorce, calling their 13-year marriage “irretrievably broken,” according to court documents.

Bundchen’s announcement read in part, “The decision to end a marriage is never easy but we have grown apart and while it is, of course, difficult to go through something like this, I feel blessed for the time we spent together and only wish the best for Tom always.” “You face adversity in your professional life,” Brady said on his podcast. “You face adversity in other aspects of life. It all builds resilience and you learn how to deal with the adversities and hopefully they make you stronger.”

After 13 years of marriage Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen officially filed for divorce October 2022. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Brady and Bundchen share joint custody of two children, Benjamin, 12, and Vivian, 9.

When asked how much the divorce has weighed on Brady, Bowles said, “I can’t say for sure — Tom is a very private person. He does his job when he’s out here and he smiles a lot and that’s really all you can go by. I think everybody — no matter what profession — [when] you go through some things, it’s how you handle it and come out of it. I’m sure he has something weighing on him when he leaves work.”

  • Oct. 28, 2022: An MRI confirms Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett — one of their key pieces on defense, and whose 40.5 sacks from 2019 through Week 8 of the 2022 seasons is fourth-most in the NFL — suffered a torn left Achilles against the Ravens and is ruled out for the season.

  • Oct. 31, 2022: Speaking for the first time since his divorce was finalized, Brady says on his podcast that the split was “amicable” and his focus is on his children and winning football games. “That’s what professionals do. You focus at work when it’s time to work, and then when you come home you focus on the priorities that are at home. And all you can do is the best you can do, and that’s what I’ll just continue to do as long as I’m working, as long as I’m being a dad.”

TEN DAYS LATER, in Week 9 against the defending Super Bowl champion Rams — the very team Brady said played a big role in his decision to come back, the team that prompted multiple text messages from Brady to Licht that got the ball rolling on his return to football — Brady was victorious.

After trailing for all but the first eight minutes of the game, Brady and the Bucs got the ball back with 44 seconds left, down 13-9.

Brady’s 15-yard pass to running back Leonard Fournette in the second quarter was a history-maker, as he became the first NFL quarterback to eclipse 100,000 career passing yards in the regular season and postseason combined. Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Brady first hit a 28-yard deep shot to Otton, before spiking the ball to stop the clock. Brady then went no-huddle, firing off three straight completions before a pass interference call advanced the Bucs from the 7-yard line to the 1. With 13 seconds left, Brady faked a handoff to running back Leonard Fournette as the offensive line veered left and Otton veered right to the flat where he caught the game-winner.

Brady had called the play, and Leftwich, who had come under scrutiny for the Bucs’ lack of scoring, with some calling for Arians to take back playcalling, said, “Go for it!”

Brady and Leftwich had a long embrace afterward. It was Brady’s first fourth-quarter come-from-behind win since Week 15 of 2021, tying him with Peyton Manning for most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history (43).

Brady jogged off the field triumphantly, pumping his fist into the air. For the first time in four tries with the Bucs, he beat the Rams. He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 100,000 career (regular and postseason combined) passing yards. “That was awesome,” he said of the win.

“That was f—ing awesome.”

  • Nov. 11, 2022: Brady says he has “zero” regrets about ending his retirement despite the turbulence of the season. “I returned because I felt like I wanted to compete and I spoke to the team about it and they were excited to have me back. I don’t really regret those types of things — I think when I commit to it, I mean it and I do my best and try to give everything I can.”

  • Nov. 13, 2022: The Bucs play the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL’s first regular-season game in Germany. Brady leads three touchdown drives in the 21-16 win in Munich and becomes the first quarterback in NFL history to win in four countries. “This was one of the greatest football experiences I’ve ever had,” Brady said. “That says a lot for 23 years in the league.”

  • Nov. 27, 2022: The Bucs can’t sustain their newfound momentum after the bye week — losing in overtime to the Cleveland Browns 23-17 — a game after which Bowles faces criticism for not calling timeout on a potential game-winning drive with 32 seconds left. All-Pro tackle Wirfs gets carted off with a high ankle sprain.

  • Dec 5, 2022: Brady brings the Bucs back from a 13-point deficit on “Monday Night Football” to defeat the Saints, marking the first time the Bucs have swept the Saints since 2007. Brady’s daughter, Vivian, had expressed skepticism that her father could defeat the Saints on her 10th birthday. Brady had beaten the Saints once in six regular-season tries. “She was worried. … It was good to get her a win,” he said. It was Brady’s 44th career fourth-quarter comeback to surpass Peyton Manning for No. 1 all time.

BRADY WENT HOME to a hero’s welcome when he played at the San Francisco 49ers for just the second time in his career. The only other time he traveled to face San Francisco was in Week 11 of the 2016 season, when the Patriots defeated the 49ers 30-17 on a rainy November day — when then-49ers coach Chip Kelly joked with Brady during pregame warmup, “Damn, it’s a home game for you.”

“I always consider myself a California kid,” said Brady, who was 4 years old when he witnessed “The Catch” by Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC Championship Game.

For Brady, this was where the dream began.

“Going to 49er games — that’s where I fell in love with football,” he said.

Brady jogs to the locker room after falling to his childhood team, the San Francisco 49ers, in front of family and friends in Santa Clara, California. Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports

It’s also where Brady started nursing the chip on his shoulder, said those who knew him from his days growing up in San Mateo, California, 25 miles northwest of Levi’s Stadium.

High school teammate Matt Buzzell remembers a signature moment in the summer of 1993 for Brady. They were heading into their junior year, Brady’s first on varsity, riding in the back seat of Tom Brady Sr.’s Lexus on the way home from Bill Walsh Football Camp at Stanford University.

All eyes at the camp were on future Hall of Famer and the son of NFL great Archie Manning, Peyton Manning.

Brady, who had yet to receive a scholarship offer, wasn’t happy when Stanford assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Terry Shea handed him an envelope with a report card featuring an assessment that did not meet Brady’s standards.

“We got in the car and like, he was really upset. I mean he was mad hurt,” Buzzell said. “He was just like, ‘This guy will see.’ … and granted, he wasn’t Tom Brady, he was just another face and Manning was the big star guy.

“I think that’s the reason … [Tom] is where he is, because of that kind of stuff. It’s because that report card’s still probably in a locker somewhere.”

Brady’s return to face his boyhood team, however, ended in a 35-7 loss, the third-worst defeat of his career.

Each time the Bucs appeared to have a breakthrough game this season, they’d stumble backward. Only twice up until this point had they managed to put together back-to-back wins.

“We can’t ride the roller coaster forever,” safety Logan Ryan said.

Bowles’ message was clear.

“We’ve got to decide what team we want to be. We can’t be one set of Bucs and another set of Bucs,” he told the team. “It’s got to mean something. Either we want it or we don’t.”

  • Dec. 13, 2022: Brady reveals he was asked by 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw to autograph the ball he intercepted. “It was s— for me, to be honest. It was complete s—,” Brady said with a laugh on his podcast. “I wish I didn’t throw it, but I’m trying to be a good sport. Because a lot of times I’m not a good sport.”

  • Dec. 18, 2022: Brady suffers an eighth loss as a starter in one season for the first time when the Bucs lose to the Bengals 34-23. The Bengals’ defense, motivated by Brady saying they were “fairly tough,” forced four turnovers.

  • Dec. 21, 2022: Brady is not named to Pro Bowl for the third time in four seasons despite having earned the honor 15 times in his career. Wirfs is the only Buccaneer named to the team.

  • Dec. 25, 2022: In Brady’s first Christmas Day game, the Bucs came back to beat the Arizona Cardinals in overtime and put themselves in place to win the NFC South with a win in Week 17.

THE PANTHERS DIDN’T seem to give much credence to Brady’s deep ball in Week 17, after Brady averaged 1.8 air yards per completion against the Cardinals the week before.

Carolina’s defensive scheme called for a lot of man-coverage. Evans hadn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 4 — the longest drought of his career.

But all of that changed with the NFC South division title on the line.

The Panthers game was the first time since 2016 that Brady had thrown two touchdown passes of 50-plus yards in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information, both of which went to Evans. Brady had not thrown a touchdown over 50 yards all season.

What changed? Wirfs had returned from his high ankle sprain the previous week and left tackle Donovan Smith was back from a foot injury. But also, Brady and Leftwich showed more willingness to throw on first down and take deep shots. There was a concerted effort to “cut it loose.”

The Bucs erased a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit for the second week in a row to clinch their second straight NFC South championship with a 30-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

“Tom was just dropping dimes,” Evans said.

It was also the 46th fourth-quarter comeback for Brady, after he led the Bucs back from an 11-point deficit to open the final period.

When asked if Brady’s play surprised him, Wirfs joked, “Yeah he surprises me. His old ass still threw like what? A 60-yard bomb? Yeah he surprises me.”

Wirfs joked about conversations he’ll have when his future children ask about playing with Brady.

“I’ll just tell ’em he was an old dog. I’ve loved every second of it.”

  • Jan. 2, 2023: Despite having NFC South title in hand, Bowles says he will play the starters — including Brady — in Week 18. “We can get better at a lot of things, so right now, we plan on playing him,” said Bowles, whose team was locked into the No. 4 seed. “A lot of things that we need to work on, and we don’t need our foot off the gas.”

  • Jan. 8, 2023: Brady breaks the NFL single-season completion record — his own record — of 485 set last season, finishing the regular season at 490, as the Bucs fell to the Falcons 30-17 in their regular-season finale. “He continues to defy time. Father Time is having a heck of a time with Brady,” Bowles joked. “He works hard. He loves to play the game. He’s like a little kid out there. He loves to compete. Everything else has already been said.”

  • Jan. 13, 2023: The Bucs go into the wild-card round fairly healthy. Bowles said top cornerback Carlton Davis is “good to go” after missing two weeks. Hainsey is limited in practice after leaving in Week 18 with a hamstring injury. Bowles says Jensen is moving around well but needs to pass some tests to be cleared for contact. He also says Smith’s foot was “feeling much better” and that defensive tackle Vita Vea is progressing with his strained calf after missing Week 18.

DALLAS IS WINLESS vs. Brady and hasn’t won a playoff game on the road since 1993. Despite that, the Cowboys are favored by 2.5 points on Monday night, according to Caesars sportsbook. The role is a comfortable one for Brady, who’s 7-3 as a playoff underdog.

“It’s not really who is favored or not favored, it’s who plays the best. I’ve never really paid attention to those things,” Brady said. “It’s about three hours on Monday night — and everything’s going to come down to what we do those three hours. Nothing in the past…

“I was part of a team that won every game until the Super Bowl and we didn’t play the best that day and we lost,” Brady said, referring to the Patriots’ 16-0 perfect regular season in 2007 that ended with a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

“I’ve been on the other end of it where I was a big underdog, my first year starting against the Rams, and we played better than they did that day,” Brady said, referring to Super Bowl XXXVI. “That’s all that matters. That’s what single elimination is all about. You’ve got to be at your best in that moment.”

Inside linebacker Devin White added: “We like being down and counted out.”

Brady is on the last year of his contract with the Buccaneers. He will be a free agent in the offseason if he decides to come back for a 24th season. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs believe they’re the healthiest they’ve been all season and they can compete with any team. And they have the experience of getting it done two seasons ago. They point to their Super Bowl victory in 2020 as proof that if they could hit their stride late in a pandemic year with no offseason program, an ascension in 2022 is possible.

Still, the farthest any of the six teams that reached the postseason with a losing record got in the NFL playoffs was the divisional round. That’s where Brady and the Bucs were eliminated last year.

“It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’re all willing to battle with each other,” Godwin said. “We’re all willing to take it to all zeroes on the clock.”

But once the clock hits zero — not on the game but on Brady’s season, then what? His contract with the Bucs expires after the 2022 season. Reports have already surfaced linking him to other teams, although they aren’t permitted to speak to him until the NFL’s legal tampering period begins March 13.

When asked about those reports this week, Brady said: “I don’t know. You guys have got to write something new every day, so I just try to show up and do my job.”

According to Roster Management System, the Bucs are $53,279,196 over the salary cap in 2023, although the team has until 4 p.m. ET on March 15 to be cap compliant. The Bucs have committed over the past two seasons to borrowing against the future to keep their window with Brady open.

Licht will make every effort to keep Brady, who said his only focus is on defeating the Cowboys, not on contemplating his future or “smelling the roses.” Brady said Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest should serve as a reminder that tomorrow isn’t promised for anyone.

“We’re not promised anything,” Brady said on his podcast. “None of us are. Not one play. So just take it for what it is.”

Brady has much to think about. He has been adamant that when he chooses to retire again, he will take as much time as he needs to mull the decision and believes it will be for good. When that will come, teammates aren’t sure. Some feel this is the last ride while others believe he’ll want to continue because he is playing at a high level and enjoying himself.

“You see the passion that he plays with — it really floods through the whole team,” said quarterback Kyle Trask, who spent the past two seasons studying under him.

“He’s a guy who could have easily been like, ‘Man, this is my 20-whatever year, I could just turn this thing in and just go on about my life,'” inside linebacker Lavonte David said. “His career is already set, he’s already a Hall of Famer — but the way he carried himself, coming to work even through the hard times, being the leader that he is, smiling with everybody, just being Tom — he never changed. That’s why he’s our leader.”

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