Anyone with two eyes and a heart knows that, despite his age, Tom Brady put together an epic season last year. At the age of 39, Brady returned from his four-game Deflategate suspension and broke the record for best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history (28-2). He threw for almost 300 yards per game, went 11-1 as a starter and engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history to win his fifth Lombardi Trophy.
He elevated himself from an all-time great to G.O.A.T. status in the process and created an aura around himself that made statements like "I want to play until I'm 45" actually believable.
But there is a weird undercurrent happening in and around Boston over the last month, with lots of folks wondering whether or not Brady might actually consider a surprise retirement following the 2017 season.
It all really begins with how the Patriots are handling the Jimmy Garoppolo situation. Instead of trading his backup, who enters 2017 on the final year of his rookie contract, Bill Belichick opted to keep Jimmy G on the roster as a cheap insurance policy for a quarterback who will turn 40 on August 3.
A discussion with ESPN's Adam Schefter on Bleacher/Report's "Stick to Football" podcast provides some insight into what might happen in the future with Garoppolo. The Patriots own his rights for 2017 and can franchise or transition tag the quarterback for the 2018 season and the 2019 season, should they be so inclined. They could also sign him to an extension; Garoppolo, it is worth noting, has the same agent as Brady.
"Will the Patriots risk losing Jimmy Garoppolo? My own sense is no. They are going to figure out a way one way or another to keep him there — whether that means signing him to an extension, or franchising him, or making it work," Schefter told hosts Matt Miller and Connor Rodgers. "We'll see how that plays out. I don't think they are going to lose him. I don't think they want to lose him. I think they recognize how good they think he is — many of us don't know that right now because we haven't seen him play on a consistent basis. They have. They've watched him practice. They've seen him in practice. They know what he is and isn't capable of. They are big believers in him."
Schefter also added a salient point on Brady -- if the Patriots lose the Super Bowl to the Falcons (and they were down 28-3 late in the third quarter), the offseason narrative isn't months of fawning over Brady, it's wondering if Brady will continue to play at a high level into his 40s.
"Again, I'd like to say this, Tom Brady, that Super Bowl was 28-3 at one point, and if that game had continued on that course, the offseason would have been dedicated to people talking about is it time to replace Tom Brady with Jimmy Garoppolo?" Schefter continued. "When Tom Brady turned that game around, not only did he win a Super Bowl for the Patriots, he stayed off all the [naysayers] that would have come, I believe if they would have lost that game as decisively and as one-sided as it was at one point in time. He's 40 years old. He's going to be 40 years old this year and he is the greatest quarterback of all-time. None of that is in dispute, and he may play for five or six more years, he may do that, but the chances are he's not going to because nobody has ever done that before.
"I'm not going to challenge the great Tom Brady in any way. I would never challenge that guy ever, but Father Time usually wins that battle. If he can beat Father Time, he's even more incredible than we think he is. We'll see."
So in the context of that, it's not crazy to think the Pats want to hang onto Garoppolo. The price of paying a backup quarterback a large(r) salary for multiple years is a penance compared to the price you pay if your franchise doesn't have a quarterback. If Garoppolo will mean a seamless transition from Brady, he's worth a massive investment.
And what if Brady is going to "Reverse Jeter" the 2017 season? It is not difficult to argue the Yankees put the franchise's wellbeing behind the pomp and circumstance of celebrating "The Captain" during his final season, when he was paraded from city to city and lavished with gifts. Jeter batted .256 as the Yankees won 84 games.
NFL players are not afforded such a luxury and there is no chance the Patriots would engage in such shenanigans; nor would Brady let them. If Brady were going to retire at the age of 40, it would come the same subtle and surprising way his entrance to the NFL did back in 2001.
Which is what makes the undercurrent in the Boston media landscape so interesting. It started in early May when Tom Curran of CSN New England wrote a story entitled "The Patriots, Tom Brady and the Gathering Storm." Curran essentially set the table for what might happen if Brady struggled this year and the Patriots were forced to make a decision between the long-term investment of Garoppolo and the short-term investment of Brady as the face of the franchise.
If Brady hadn't won five Super Bowls, galvanized a fanbase in defiance of the NFL that persecuted him, helped make a few billion for the Family Kraft and given the region something to do with itself in the fall and winter for the past 18 years, he'd probably already be gone.
Because the other side of why Brady's been able to pilot the Patriots to greatness is that Belichick set the flight plan. And that plan includes an unflinching, unapologetic, simplistic mantra that he is in his role to do what's best for the team.
Brady has previously acknowledged that even the greatest players in this game can be moved. Just last year he said he "absolutely" understands that the franchise comes first.
"You can't be around this long and not realize that the world will keep spinning and the sun will come up tomorrow without you. That's just the way it goes," Brady said in November. "I think you enjoy just what you -- the experiences that you have and then also understand it just keeps going on. It could happen to anybody. You just have to show up for work, do the best you can do everyday and let your performance just speak for yourself."
Brett Favre played for the Vikings (and Jets), Joe Montana played for the Chiefs and Peyton Manning played for the Broncos. No one is untouchable in the business of football.
Then there was an article from Ben Volin of the Boston Globe just last week, entitled "Are there signs of a Tom Brady retirement in the next year or two?"
But there's a nagging thought that Brady, who turns 40 in August, doesn't really expect to make it to 45 — that all this talk about playing several more years is just his way of setting us up for a surprise retirement next spring, or the spring after that. There is plenty of evidence, and you don't have to look too hard for it.
Volin points to Garoppolo's status -- again, remember Schefter pointing out the Patriots want to keep him -- as well as the fact that Brady "ramped up his off-field branding this year, even by his standards." And, of course, there's his family. His wife Gisele Bundchen, most recently in the news for vaguely claiming on CBS This Morning that Brady has dealt with concussions, would love him to walk away from football right now. She requested as much after the Super Bowl. What your wife wants matters a lot when it comes to employment and life choices, especially when the family consists of multiple millionaires and you play a violent sport for a living.
Tony Massorati of CBS Boston and 98.7 the Sports Hub adds more fuel to the fire in what is admittedly "100 percent speculation," asking "Are the Patriots Throwing Tom Brady a Going Away Party?"
In all seriousness, take a good, long look at the avalanche of moves and acquisitions the Patriots have made this offseason. The Pats retained linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch. They signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a blockbuster contract. They traded a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks and sacrificed additional selections for tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive end Kony Ealy and running back Mike Gillislee. They even brought in running back Rex Burkhead.
Massorati adds that the Pats brought back a disgruntled Malcolm Butler and extended tight end Rob Gronkowski "to give him the chance to earn more money in 2017, without any real business benefit to the team."
Ensuring that Gronk is ready to roll for the coming season would be a critical component of any party for Brady.
All of this is just folks wondering what might happen in a future that is inherently uncertain. If Brady stays healthy, plays at an MVP level in 2017 -- which he did in 2016 -- and the Patriots make a run to the Super Bowl or even just deep in the playoffs, he could very easily decide he wants to play beyond 2017, which is currently in the cards.
And if that happens, the Patriots will be hard-pressed to move on from a guy who has established himself as the greatest quarterback of all time. It might be considered bad business to let Brady leave if he's playing well.
The Pats are a unique team when it comes to how they handle their business and the Brady/Garoppolo situation is as unique and fluid as it comes when you factor in the history and the players involved and the legacies at stake, not to mention the contracts that come into play.
Everything is on the table, but there are pretty clearly rumblings about a shorter future for Tom Brady than many people envisioned as recently as just two months ago.