UPDATE (March 17, 2020, 09:35 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the NFL announcement that Tom Brady will be joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If a global pandemic hadn't already halted professional sports altogether, Tom Brady's announcement Tuesday that he was ending his two-decade run with the iconic New England Patriots would have caused serious whiplash.
Brady has often said he would like to play until he is 45, and even if he has shown clear signs of decline — his long ball, especially, isn't what it used to be — NFL teams are constantly on the hunt for decent quarterback play. The tantalizing possibility that Brady might recapture the magic even if he's going to be 43 years old at the beginning of next season apparently drove the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to offer him a contract.
With Brady putting on a new uniform after having spent his entire career in Massachusetts, he joins a proud cohort of all-time greats who played for years with one team only to act out our collective denial of mortality by playing a slumping, wet cough of last games trying to prove themselves, while instead serving as a living totem to the harsh truth that time is the great destroyer, robbing us of our peak facilities, grinding us into dust and eventually leaving us for dead.
The competitive mindset of great athletes simply doesn't allow for graceful exits as a matter of course, and watching them spend a year in a strange jersey, underperforming and learning that their careers are functionally over, has its own kind of joy, in that it turns the inevitability of death into a farce. Watching this happen with Brady will be particularly delicious because the New England QB has been the most irritating player of my lifetime and the Patriots the most irritating team.
Granted, Brady has racked up three deserved NFL MVP Awards on top of his six Super Bowl titles, a whopping 74,571 passing yards and 541 passing touchdowns — second only to New Orleans' Drew Brees for the all-time lead in both categories. The question of whether Brady is the greatest quarterback who ever lived is fraught and outside the scope of this article, but his partnership with longtime Patriots coach and all-world weirdo Bill Belichick was certainly the most productive in the history of the NFL.
It was also grating and deeply loathsome, as they devoured win after win from the trough of a permanently moribund AFC East and indulged in any opportunity to cheat that was afforded them, playing a boring, old-school offense during a time when the NFL was starting to break out of its two-dimensional tactical thinking.
And it isn't just Brady's playing style that's offensive. He has courted controversy through his affinity for soft footballs, red hats and the pseudoscience surrounding football concussions. He is handsome in a way that's annoying, and he left underrated actress Bridget Moynahan for model Gisele Bündchen, a purely unforgivable act in the eyes of all MoynaHeads everywhere.
While Brady might deserve his time in the spotlight of deterioration more than some other legends, he is hardly unique in his decision to stick around for longer than he should. Take, for instance, the sight of Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey.
Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, hands down, winning six titles and five MVPs in classic Chicago Bulls red, electrifying every basketball court he ever stepped on, turning the NBA into a global product and putting himself in a position to be worth more than $2 billion. If he had just stepped away forever after juking Bryon Russell out of his shorts and drilling a midrange jumper to take the Bulls past the Utah Jazz in the 1998 finals, he could have walked away a perfect hero, flawless all the way to the last buzzer.
But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. The juice of being a professional athlete was too powerful, and after a year or so as the general manager of the Wizards, he laced 'em up again for his new employer, donning the team's ugly blue uniforms and grinding out two more, subpar-for-Michael-Jordan seasons while failing to make the playoffs.
This slower, grouchier, less successful Jordan has become an avatar for the flip side of the man's transcendent success. Sure, he could glide around the court and score on everyone, but that transcendence came at the price of sanity, turning him into a competitive furnace that burned so hot it consumed everything in its path and made him an obsessive hunter for victory, constantly seeking the rush of high stakes even when it might not be advisable.
No one needed to know this about Jordan, at least not before he gave his wild Hall of Fame speech. But the hunger that made him great in his youth betrayed him in middle age, and he was left in a strange uniform, a living, breathing reminder that if Michael Jordan can be laid low by time, transmuted into a shell of himself, you also don't have much hope in the face of death's silent whispers.
Similarly, in 2001, Hakeem Olajuwon, the two-time NBA Finals MVP, found himself in a Toronto Raptors jersey, guarding New York Knicks legend Patrick Ewing in an Orlando Magic jersey. New York Jets legend Joe Namath washed up with the Los Angeles Rams, hoping to kick-start his acting career. Yankees catcher supreme Yogi Berra went to the Mets, hit a paltry 2-for-9 in four games and retired on the spot, realizing it was an act of hubris and heading it off before it got worse.
Even Babe Ruth, America's first true celebrity athlete, found himself in strange threads as his career wound to an end with the Boston Braves. Ruth, who desperately wanted to manage, was hoping the gig would lead to front-office employment, but it was soon made apparent to him that he was signed more as a sideshow attraction than anything else.
Being a great athlete requires supreme confidence, a sense that you can think, work or power through any obstacle. But for many athletes, that confidence just ends up stabbing them in the back as they huff off the mental fumes that made them larger-than-life superstars on the field while no longer having the physical tools to turn those sky-high dreams into concrete production.
The leftover pictures we have of legends in unfamiliar jerseys are a testament to the inevitability of the end. Every once in a while, there's an exception, such as quarterback Peyton Manning's 2013 NFL MVP Award with his new squad, the Denver Broncos. If history is any indicator, though, Brady is unlikely to equal his former rival's achievements next season.
Instead, we hopefully will be spending the fall bathing in Brady schadenfreude, watching him struggle away from the Patriots' top-flight culture, his arm getting worse and worse by the game, our screens filled with close-ups of his handsome face scowling in discontent after he gets picked off once again while wearing a hideous orange-and-black Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey.