TAMPA, Fla. -- Tom Brady walked briskly off the field after the Buccaneers lost to the Cowboys, 31-14, removing a baseball cap when he reached his parents and his sister at the mouth of the tunnel. Their appearance on the edge of the grass was unusual, but after a quick kiss for them, Brady was gone, leaving his mother looking emotional as she walked away hand in hand with his dad.
This was the second year in a row Brady had exited the field in Tampa with little sentiment after losing a playoff game, never pausing even for a quick glance around. This was Brady's third season with the Bucs, and because he is a free agent, it could very well be his last -- if not by the team's choosing, then by his own. Perhaps his parents' presence will prove to have been significant. Perhaps Brady will decide to return to Tampa again. Maybe he'll play elsewhere. It could be that Brady retires.
Brady said he was going to go home and try to get a good night of sleep, but beyond that, he offered no timeline for when he might make a decision about his future. Last year, he retired and then returned little more than a month later. This time, he said, it would be "one day at a time, truly."
And then, Brady was asked if he had any emotions as he left the field beyond those that he usually has at the end of the season.
"Just feels like the end of the season," he began. And then he continued, unbidden, thanking the media. "I love this organization. It's a great place to be. Thank you, everybody, for welcoming me."
He went on to acknowledge the media that has covered him.
"I'm very thankful for the respect and I hope I gave the same back," he said.
That was a rare moment of public reflection for Brady, and perhaps that will someday prove to have been his farewell to Tampa, if not to his career in the NFL.
Whatever Brady does, it will come against the shadow of one of his worst playoff performances. Brady looked jittery on Monday night, desperate to avoid taking a hit and completely out of sync with an offense that had had little rhythm and a vanishingly small running game all season. He finished 35 of 66 for 351 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, but it felt so much worse than that. He threw a red zone pick for the first time in Tampa. He misfired often, especially when under pressure. He sought to get rid of the ball the second it was snapped into his hands. He was held scoreless in the first half, just the second time that had happened to him in his 48 playoff games. The first time? His very first playoff game, at the end of the 2001 season. That is certainly not the kind of bookend anyone could forecast for Brady's career.
"They played good defensively and put a lot of pressure on us," Brady said. "We just couldn't make enough plays. So it was kind of typical of the way we played all year, just inefficient in the passing game and not very good in the running game. So it's hard to beat good teams like that."
Last season, the Bucs had the league's second-highest scoring offense and Brady was a top Most Valuable Player candidate.
This season, the Buccaneers were 25th in scoring, and the 14 points scored Monday were not out of step with their typical production. There had been just fleeting glimpses of what the offense used to be this season: The Bucs ran the ball well in the season-opening victory over the Cowboys, but could never recapture that part of their offense; and only in the penultimate game of the regular season did Brady and Mike Evans rekindle the chemistry that had produced so many chunk gains since Brady's arrival. On the rare occasions when Tampa Bay went to a no-huddle offense, Brady was able to direct extended drives -- it had been a panacea for the Bucs' offensive paralysis. But those moments were too few this season, the offense too battered by injuries, the rhythm and chemistry too far gone, as distant in the past as the Super Bowl championship that is now two years old.
The collapse of the offense will almost certainly lead to significant changes for the Bucs, whether Brady stays or goes. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was a frequent target of criticism and he would seem to be on the hot seat, and there could be more changes to a coaching staff that Todd Bowles inherited when he took over after Bruce Arians' retirement. Bowles acknowledged postgame that no team ever brings back all of its players, although he said there would be no rebuild. But, of course, if Brady leaves, Tampa will have to find a quarterback.
When training camp opened last summer, Bowles said he would mostly keep his hands off the offense. He comes from the defensive side of the ball, and the offense had worked so well that he had little desire -- and more importantly, no need -- to mess with it. That, though, will surely have to change now.
The Buccaneers finished the regular season at 8-9 and they struggled even to post that sub-.500 record and win the NFC South. It was only Brady's presence, and the memories of what he had done for two decades, that convinced anybody Tampa Bay could beat Dallas and make another playoff run.
The ephemeral nature of success in the NFL was on full display in this game. There was, it turned out, a playoff-worthy quarterback performance Monday night. Dak Prescott, who played one of his worst games in the regular-season finale, was decisive and aggressive and confident -- and as a result, the current iteration of the Cowboys has rarely looked more dominant.
It was the kind of game that Brady used to put together routinely, especially in the playoffs. But he is 45 now, and while his arm has not failed him, he appears less willing to endure hits. Against the Cowboys, he rarely threw downfield; while part of that was how the Cowboys were defending the Bucs, the other part was that Brady wanted to get rid of the ball quickly. It was a symptom of the season and it was also a microcosm of Tampa Bay's state of affairs. There was too much pressure, not enough protection, the play wasn't there -- so Brady, who looked nothing so much as worn out this season, was bailing out.
Maybe that is how Brady's time in Tampa ends. Maybe that is how his career closes, too. With him absorbing the kind of beating he used to administer. With another quarterback beating Brady at his own game.