Apparently, we haven't learned anything from horror movies. If we had, we would have remembered that the villain always returns the very second the world believes they are finally vanquished. So, it was on a random Sunday night in March – during the hours normally set aside in the US for college basketball discussion – that Tom Brady announced he is returning to the NFL.
"These past two months I've realised my place is still on the field and not in the stands," Brady wrote on his Twitter account. "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."
And just like that, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were contemplating a rebuild just days ago, have learned that the most accomplished quarterback in history will remain on their roster. Given the relative softness of the NFC South, something which most likely influenced Brady’s reversal, Bucs fans should be eager to see Brady back. While the team still has holes to fill, Brady’s return is enough to establish the team as a genuine Super Bowl contender once again (at least according to oddsmakers).
Outside of Tampa Bay, the reaction to Brady’s return – which was timed to occur just before the start of NFL free agency – has been mixed. It came, after all, a mere 40 days since his first announcement, which itself emerged after a long weekend full of non-denials. For all the excitement regarding Brady’s return, there is also a feeling of weariness, echoing that old line: “how can we miss you when you won’t go away?”
After all, the NFL had just given him a retirement lovefest. Amusingly, Brady's "final touchdown ball" sold for more than a half-million on Saturday. Brady's on-the-field timing remains impeccable, but off the field, it could use some work. He had barely left the stage before coming back for his encore and if he's hoping for one of those retirement tours like MLB gave New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, he may be overestimating the sentimentality of opposing teams and fans alike.
Again, we should have seen this coming and not just because Brady immediately began hinting that the door wasn’t entirely closed just days after he initially “retired”. This wasn’t going to be how his NFL career ended, if only because the 44-year-old always said that his goal was to play until he was at least 45, and he had shown few signs of diminishing last season, leading the league in touchdowns and passing yards.
Let’s hope, for his sake and pride, Brady can maintain that form. An old adage is that you don’t retire from the game, the game itself decides. When given the chance, hyper-competitive superstar athletes stay in their sport for as long as their bodies can hold up and teams are willing to pay them.
In the NBA, Michael Jordan retired as the Greatest Of All Time not once but twice, which ended up being exactly one time too many. His final two seasons with the Washington Wizards have since become shorthand for the period when an athlete refuses to accept their professional mortality.
The NFL is full of athletes who have overstayed their welcome, which is understandable given how precious time in the league really is. For instance, football fans have collectively agreed to forget that Joe Montana’s last season was spent with the Kansas City Chiefs rather than the San Francisco 49ers.
Even more depressing was the saga of "Football Hamlet" Brett Favre. Favre was a legend with the Green Bay Packers but his reputation never fully recovered from the the highly public indecisiveness he showed before returning with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, with mixed results.
Brady has already ensured that his time with the Buccaneers won’t be seen as an embarrassment: he won the Super Bowl in his first year with Tampa Bay and then led them to a 13-4 record the next season, which ended in a close loss to a Rams team that went on to win the championship. Brady had given us the perfect sports ending, it seemed, but it wasn’t enough for him.
Athletes don’t play for us, however, they play for themselves. Brady – probably correctly – believes he has more left in the tank and he’s not yet ready to give up the only professional career he’s ever known. The NFL record books show that there’s nothing left for Brady to prove by returning to the field, but maybe that doesn’t matter when the game has decided it’s not done with you.