Tom Brady's stunning return to NFL was a decision we should have seen coming | Opinion

Jarrett Bell

Von Miller was right. Shortly after Tom Brady’s would-be final season ended with a dramatic loss in the NFC divisional playoffs, the Los Angeles Rams star pass rusher predicted that we had not seen the last of the iconic quarterback — despite the flood of expectations that retirement was imminent.

Miller, it seems, was playing a hunch.

“Nah, it ain’t going to be the end of Tom Brady,” Miller proclaimed.

Welp. With Brady revealing on Sunday that he has run a reverse on retirement and will return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 23rd NFL season — 40 days after announcing that he was done — Miller’s bold prediction came back to life.

Leave it to Brady to shake up the prediction business attached to the torrid NFL news cycle. Count Miller among the notables who for some reason could not fathom that Brady, 44, wouldn’t reconsider his retirement decision.

In addition to Miller, the legendary Joe Montana and rising star Josh Allen went on record to declare they weren’t buying the notion that Brady was done.

During an interview with TMZ on the eve of Super Bowl 56, Montana said that Brady would be “crazy” if he retired now.

“Look at the team he’s got. Why would you want to leave that?” Montana told TMZ while attended a Fanatics event in Los Angeles. “I don’t think it’s done yet. I don’t think so. I don’t know. His boss might say something more about it.”

TOM BRADY:Winners, losers of QB's decision to return to NFL, Buccaneers

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reacts after running for a first down in the first quarter of the game against the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium on November 22, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

His boss? Montana was referring to Brady’s supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen. He also noted how Brady, on a podcast a few days after “retiring,” dropped a major hint about the possibility of flipping with his “never say never” statement.

“He’s already alluded to it,” Montana said on Feb, 12. “You never know. I mean, he’s still able to play at a high level. The way the season ended for him, with the team he has…give it at least one more shot.”

Allen, whose Buffalo Bills lost at Kansas City in the AFC divisional playoffs, saw it similarly during an interview with USA TODAY Sports on radio row in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

“On the note of Tom retiring, I’ll believe it when we see it,” Allen told Mackenzie Salmon, who hosts “Sports Seriously” for USA TODAY. “He is the ultimate competitor and I’m happy he made the decision for himself and his family, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we see him next year, the year after that or the year after that.”

Montana, Miller and Allen certainly relate to Brady’s reversal — and his social media-posted explanation that the competitive juices are still flowing — in a way that many fans and pundits cannot: as participants in the NFL’s high-stakes arena.

They know. The owner of a record seven Super Bowl rings, who in the past pledged that he wanted to play at least until 45, has something left while coming off a season in which he passed for a career-high 5,316 yards and nearly rallied the Bucs to what would have been another remarkable comeback victory against the Rams.

Miller was all in Brady’s face in that NFC playoff game, scoring a “trifecta” on one play with a sack, forced fumble and recovery, and on another play leaving the quarterback with a bloody lip after a helmet-to-helmet blow that didn’t draw a penalty — except for the flag that Brady received for the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his career as he screamed at referee Shawn Hochuli.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom Brady,” Miller said when I asked during his postgame news conference if he felt that he had just played in what might go down as the final game of Brady’s remarkable career. “I’ve always respected him, but spending time with him off the field, at the Kentucky Derby and him helping out with (Miller’s annual) pass-rush summit…I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy.

“The only reason not to like Tom Brady is that he wins. He’s a great guy. Helluva leader. I don’t think this is going to be the end of it, man. He’s going to dust himself off and he’s going to be ready to go.”

Or, as Brady put it in his social media post, "LFG" – Let’s (Freaking) Go.

The Bucs clearly hoped for this result, which comes with the great timing of being settled before the start of the NFL’s new league year and official opening of the free agency market. During the NFL scouting combine two weeks ago, Bucs general manager Jason Licht reiterated his statement they they would “leave the light on” for Brady while colorfully cantankerous coach Bruce Arians suggested that he play Brady in a round of golf with the stakes tied to a Brady return.

“I beat your ass, you’re coming back,” is how Arians envisioned it.

Now Arians and Licht can get on with the offseason business of trying to rebuild the best supporting cast to make another potential championship run. It’s a huge challenge. Again. Last year, the Bucs became the first defending Super Bowl champion since the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers to return all 22 starters from their offense and defense  – with several players opting to take contracts that were less than what they could have likely received on the open market  – for the chance to seek a repeat crown.

So, here they go again. And it’s a who’s who list of potential free agent departures that includes all three of the top running backs — Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and Giovani Bernard — and front-seven defenders Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and William Gholston. Cornerback Carlton Davis and center Ryan Jensen are back in the fold, but offensive guard Alex Cappa has decided to bolt for Cincinnati.

Licht will be challenged to creatively create cap room to keep as much of the premium talent in tow as possible.

Then there’s Rob Gronkowski. Interestingly, Arians said during the combine that “The Gronk” had been a regular at Bucs headquarters for offseason training, which in retrospect seems like a valuable clue about what could happen with Brady. Remember, Gronkowski came out of retirement to reunite with Brady in Tampa. That he was already training hard for the coming season and had not mentioned the possibility of himself retiring might have been quite the omen.

Then again, the declaration from Tom Brady Sr. during the days before his son announced his “retirement” was prescient, too. As reports swirled that Brady was close to an official retirement announcement, Brady, Sr. contended that they were premature. Apparently so, given what’s now gone down after that clunky retirement decision that seemed to spin a bit out of the usual controlled precision that TB12 operates in, both on the field and in managing his enormous presence away from the field. 

Of course, Brady can shed the best light now on how he arrived at his “unretirement” decision. When he retired, he alluded to the desire to spend more time with his family, including three children. Maybe the kids ultimately didn’t want their daddy to quit just now, which would flow with his competitiveness. Perhaps Bundchen signed off, adjusting concerns about the long-term risks associated with concussions that are always a threat when playing the brutal sport. And it’s plausible that the weeks after the season allowed Brady more time to reflect and process, while his still-formidable body had time to heal while the itch to compete while he can — to chase the thought of possible riding off into the sunset with another Super Bowl crown.

Regardless, coming back now rather than changing his mind in, say, July, allows Brady to start early in reigniting an offseason training rhythm that he knows a whole lot more about than he does in how to attack life after football.

So, Brady changed his mind? Like the initial decision on retirement, this, too, shows that he’s only human.

Along the way, he gave us another dramatic chapter in marking his journey — and a reminder that the bold predictions came with much substance.

Montana was right. A bitter loss in the NFC playoffs just was not the way Brady wanted to go out.

“If it happens again, he might leave it like that,” Montana surmised during the TMZ interview in mid-February. “The first time it happens, it happens to all of us (in wanting to pursue another championship run). I don’t know for sure, but I don’t know that it’s all over. Let’s put it that way.”

Brady, of course, always had the final answer.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.