Winners, losers of Tom Brady's decision to return to NFL, Buccaneers
It should be clear by now that the NFL doesn't need free agency to spark a frenzy.
In the last week, there hasn't been much "off" to the offseason. After Aaron Rodgers decided to return to the Packers, Russell Wilson was traded to the Broncos and Carson Wentz was dealt to the Commanders, the league's quarterback landscape has shifted significantly.
But all of those developments paled in magnitude when compared to Sunday's stunning turn: Tom Brady announced his return to the NFL and the Buccaneers after 40 days in retirement.
In one tweet, the league regained its most accomplished passer of all time and returned a former Super Bowl contender back into the title picture. But Brady's move had even more wide-ranging consequences.
Here are the winners and losers of Brady's decision:
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From the initial leak of his plans to his "never say never" declaration about potentially playing again, something felt off about the way Brady, a master of control, first left the NFL. Sure enough, he still had an itch that could only be satiated with a comeback. Regardless of whether Brady announces a "Last Dance"-style farewell tour or leaves open the possibility for playing beyond 2022, people will unquestionably be giving him his flowers at every stop. He now is set to play in his age-45 season, accomplishing a long-stated goal. For a player with seemingly nothing left to achieve, Brady still cited "unfinished business" in his decision to return. Ultimately, that might be the matter of following his own heart.
Perhaps no one else stands to directly benefit more from Brady's decision than Licht, the Buccaneers' general manager. While he set this team up nicely with the proper pieces to entice the three-time NFL MVP two years ago, Licht was facing a possible free-agent exodus that would have dissolved the roster to a dangerous point. With Brady back in the fold, a group that previously looked like a playoff hopeful at best now reclaims its position as an expected contender. And Brady's gravitational pull might help bring back other players who otherwise would have bolted for richer deals. One such case already popped up on Sunday night, when Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen agreed to a three-year deal to return.
At 69, Arians would have been in an odd spot as a steward of the Buccaneers' new era. Famously hands-off with his operation compared to his head-coaching peers, he again can entrust many aspects of the offense to Brady and his assistants. That approach might have had an uglier result with a bridge quarterback or unproven passer, which looked to be the options prior to Sunday. Instead, Arians gets to utilize what has been a winning formula with the signal-caller.
TV networks/streaming outlets
Savor this moment, broadcast teams. Instead of trying to fuel hype for post-Brady Tampa Bay teams that might have looked like prime "Thursday Night Football" material, the league's partners can tout a slate of marquee, prime-time games. And there's no shortage of story lines. The Buccaneers will play host in a Super Bowl 55 rematch against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, a showdown of all-time greats against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, a tilt against the defending-champion Rams and two contests against some of the game's best young quarterbacks in the Bengals' Joe Burrow and Ravens' Lamar Jackson. On the road, there are ratings bonanzas awaiting against the Cowboys, 49ers and Steelers.
With Brady coming back, there's even more reason for Tampa Bay to try to get a long-term deal with Godwin done to give the organization more flexibility for a Super Bowl push. Even if the wide receiver and team can't reach an agreement before this season, Godwin would no doubt benefit from playing another year with a quarterback who helped him rack up 98 receptions and 1,103 receiving yards in 14 games last season before the wide receiver tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Running it back with the NFL's leader in passing yards (5,316) and touchdown passes (43) seems like a good way to get paid.
After not landing a head-coaching job this past cycle, the Bucs offensive coordinator gets another go with a passer who has mastered Tampa Bay's attack. Leftwich already has endorsements from Arians and Brady, among others, but the quarterback's return should keep him at the top of candidate lists next winter.
His good pal "Tommy Boy" is back. Will arguably the NFL's all-time greatest tight end follow him? As a pending free agent, Gronk should have plenty of suitors – including the Bills, who could offer a potential homecoming for the western New York native. But the option of playing a 12th NFL season with the only starting quarterback he's ever known is back on the table, and that has to be considered a win for him – so long as he still wants to play.
Guten Tag, NFL fans in Germany! The Buccaneers are set to play host this fall in the first NFL regular-season game held in the country, and now fans shouldn't have to suffer through a potential dud. Tampa Bay was one of four franchises (the Panthers and Chiefs joining Brady's old club, the Patriots) granted access to Germany as an international market, and with Brady now set to head overseas, the Buccaneers could get a leg up there. It seems like a stretch that the schedule-makers would put the game against Mahomes and the Chiefs in this slot, and the pick might be supposed "rival" Carolina, whom Brady has beaten by at least two touchdowns in all four matchups since becoming a Buccaneer. But this is still no doubt a boon to the league's international expansion efforts.
Sunday's announcement might have elicited a groan from many fans, who didn't even get to taste a full Brady-less offseason. Yet this league's on-field product is unquestionably at its best when it is able to showcase its top passers in peak performances. There are plenty of young gunslingers who look up to the challenge of entering that elite group alongside Brady. Fans should consider themselves lucky, however, that Brady isn't quite ready to exit.
Well, at least we can expect some level of competency within the division now. Given the Saints' new post-Sean Payton era, the Falcons' continued rebuild and whatever the Panthers are trying to do, things looked grim for this foursome with Brady gone. But there would have been an intriguing element of parity given the Bucs' expected losses. Now, however, it seems like a long shot that anyone can catch Tampa Bay – though Brady still has yet to beat New Orleans in the regular season since he left for Florida.
Arians' hyping of Gabbert as a viable starter for the Buccaneers felt odd in late February when the coach first made the comments. Now, it feels downright bizarre that it was ever a consideration. "(Gabbert) has never played with a team this good," Arians told the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud. Fair enough! But there are a lot of Buccaneers fans who are glad the free-agent-to-be won't have to. The former first-round bust was looking at what could have been his last and best shot at being a No. 1 again, and now that opportunity is no more. Still, he's an Arians favorite and could earn a solid payday backing up Brady if he re-signs.
Maybe he's better off with another year of seasoning. But the 2021 second-round pick is now set to be two years into his four-year rookie contract without getting a whiff of the field. It looked exceedingly unlikely that the Buccaneers would have picked a quarterback early in the upcoming NFL draft, but if Brady exits after this season, Tampa Bay might be more inclined to evaluate its options in 2023, when a richer class of collegiate passers is expected to be available.
No, this isn't just about another renowned quarterback grabbing attention. When Rodgers announced last week he would return to the Packers, he did so amid a landscape in which the balance of power tilted increasingly away from the NFC. There's still the little matter of unseating the Rams, but there weren't many other teams solidly in the conference's top tier beyond Green Bay. Now, Rodgers can welcome Brady and the Buccaneers back to that club. The reigning NFL MVP now must not only prepare for a rare showdown against Brady at Raymond James Stadium in the upcoming season but also fight the Buccaneers off in the Packers' bid to capture the NFC's No. 1 seed for a third consecutive year.
The conspiracy theories that Brady was plotting a way to the Bay Area even after his retirement always seemed far-fetched, and the quarterback quickly put them to rest by clarifying in his statement that he would be back with the Buccaneers in 2022. Still, as San Francisco prepares to hand the reins to a playoff roster from Jimmy Garoppolo to unproven Trey Lance, this is an undeniable what-if moment for a team Brady preferred as his destination two years ago, according to a new book by Sports Illustrated's Seth Wickersham. Better hope Lance makes a sizable leap this offseason.
TV networks/streaming partners
Yes, they're an entry here, too. That's one fewer big-name candidate in the great announcer reshuffling of 2022. It was unclear whether Brady would have wanted to immediately jump into the booth after hanging it up, but he would have been an attention-grabbing pull for Amazon, Fox or any other outlet that could have convinced him to join. And so much for the possibility of an understated farewell.
College basketball fans
Hey there, Selection Sunday. Nice spotlight you've got there. Sure would be a shame if someone stole it ...
Whoever bought Brady's 'last' touchdown pass
Time to look up the official legal precedent on auction mulligans. Hours before Brady's announcement, someone "won" an auction for what was supposed to be the last touchdown pass of the quarterback's career, paying $518,000 for the ball that marked a 55-yard strike to Mike Evans in Tampa Bay's season-ending loss to the Rams. While this item's value has already undergone a nose dive that would make this year's stock market losses look modest, maybe it could be an entry into the buyer's remorse hall of fame.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.