It didn't take long for Tom Brady to have to answer questions about his uncertain future with the New England Patriots after the team lost 20-13 to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Wild Card Round.
What we do know is that it doesn't appear the 42-year-old is planning to retire.
"I would say it’s pretty unlikely, but – yeah, hopefully unlikely," Brady said of potentially retiring to the collective media, including WEEI's Ryan Hannable.
Whether Brady returns to the Patriots for a 21st season is less clear. Brady's contract for 2020 will automatically void on March 17, leaving the Patriots with $13.5 million in dead cap money and an uncertain future at quarterback. They cannot place the franchise tag on Brady, who has led them to six Super Bowl titles.
Bill Belichick, who has coached Brady for his entire career, was non-committal after the game when asked about the future of No. 12, among other impending free agents.
“Everybody’s situation on the team is different. There are no two that are exactly the same," Belichick said. "The future is the future for all of them just like it is for Tom, and anybody else you want to bring up. Certainly, Tom is an iconic figure in this organization and nobody respects Tom more than I do. I respect all the other players and all the coaches in the organization, too. I think everybody that is part of it is an important part of it. I want to give the proper attention and communication and detail and thought into my input into those decisions."
Meanwhile, owner Robert Kraft says that he "hopes and prays" that Brady will either return to the Patriots or retire. That could set up an interesting crossroads if Belichick, the de-facto general manager, believes now is the best team to go in another direction at the quarterback position.
Let's imagine, for a moment, that Brady doesn't return to New England in 2020, but decides to continue his career. Where could he end up? Here are five possibilities:
Los Angeles Chargers
During the 2019 season, there was a running joke in the RADIO.COM offices that Tom Brady was going to end up wearing lightning bolts and powder blue to finish his career. It was said half-jokingly, but it makes quite a bit of sense.
In 2018, the Chargers went 12-4 and won a playoff game, which led to them entering 2019 with Super Bowl aspirations. Rather than making good on those hopes, the Chargers went just 5-11 in 2019, losing nine games by a touchdown or less.
There's some thought that the Chargers will move on from franchise icon Philip Rivers, who isn't under contract for 2020. The 38-year-old threw 20 interceptions in 2019. Brady, theoretically, could be an upgrade from what Rivers was in 2019. Even in an underwhelming 2019 season, Brady was picked off just eight times. If you trim off a few interceptions, the Chargers' 2019 season may have looked very different.
Additionally, the Chargers have struggled to gain traction since moving into Los Angeles in 2017. The NFL has reportedly pondered the idea of moving the team to London permanently. For the time being, the Chargers are set to move into SoFi Stadium with the Rams in 2020. If anything could make them must-watch in Los Angeles, it would be to bring the most accomplished quarterback in the history of the sport in to finish his career.
Las Vegas Raiders
How crazy would it be for Tom Brady to end up on the Jon Gruden-coached Raiders nearly 20 years after the Tuck Rule Game? Probably too crazy to be true, but it's an interesting thought, especially as the Raiders move to a new city.
To the surprise of just about everyone, the Raiders went 7-9 in 2019 following one of the most tumultuous preseasons in NFL history. At one point, the Raiders were 6-4, and they weren't ultimately eliminated from playoff contention until Week 17.
Derek Carr had a statically productive 2019, tossing 21 touchdowns and racking up over 4,000 passing yards. You do wonder, though, if Gruden feels like he's reached his ceiling with Carr. If so, a trade is unlikely with so many veteran quarterbacks expected to be available, but the Patriots could release Carr and only take a $5 million cap hit in 2020.
It's fair to wonder how much of an upgrade Brady would be over Carr at this stage of his career, though you would be hard-pressed to find too many people that would prefer to have Carr start over Brady next season.
Whether Brady would have interest in joining a relatively young team - and one that plays in the same division at Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs - is unknown. However, if the Patriots were able to add a star wide receiver this offseason, they'd be in pretty good shape in terms of skill-position players when you factor in running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Darren Waller and wideouts Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow.
If Brady joined the Raiders, it would certainly end Antonio Brown's pipe dream of reuniting with him in 2020.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The feeling here is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will retain Jameis Winston as their starting quarterback for the 2020 season. However, head coach Bruce Arians left the door cracked open to go in another direction after Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to thrown 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season.
“With another quarterback? Oh yeah. If we can win with this one, we can definitely win with another one, too," Arians said to the collective media, including Rick Stroud of The Tampa Bay Times.
For as tantalizing as Winston's peaks are, his valleys make it hard to imagine him leading a team to the postseason unless he drastically alters the way he plays.
The Buccaneers, though, have the offensive talent to be a playoff team. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both had north of 1,000 receiving yards in 2019, despite the fact that neither played all 16 games. For as limited as the Patriots were in terms of offensive weapons in 2019, the Buccaneers are flush with skill-position talent.
What's more, there's not much certainty in the rest of the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule as their head coach Tuesday, but they are left to pick up the pieces from a 5-11 season. Since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons are just 24-24. The New Orleans Saints also may have missed their window to win a second Super Bowl with Drew Brees as well. Brees, who will turn 41 in January, has a similar contract structure to Brady, as his contract will automatically void on March 18, leaving the Saints with $21.3 million in dead cap, or $5.4 million in dead cap if they restructure with Brees, who cannot be franchise tagged.
New York Giants
Can you think of a more full-circle narrative than Brady finishing his career with the team that arguably caused him the most heartbreak (does the name David Tyree ring a bell for anyone?)? Crazy as it may seem, the Giants are reportedly a real possibility for Brady and maybe you can understand why. Besides sticking it to Bill Belichick, defecting to New York (where Brady already owns a home) would also allow the six-time Super Bowl champ to reunite with coach Joe Judge, one of several ex-Patriots staffers now stationed in the Big Apple. Brady has always placed a premium on winning above all else, but if the future Hall of Famer is aiming for one last cash grab before he hangs it up, the G-Men (sixth-most available cap space) have plenty of dough to throw around.
Paying top-dollar for two years (at most) of a declining Brady after just spending a first-round pick on Daniel Jones (who led all rookies with 24 touchdown passes in his debut campaign) would no doubt be a bold maneuver, but known risk-taker Dave Gettleman may be just YOLO enough to pull it off. A stagnant supporting cast (a frequent complaint of Brady’s throughout his time in New England) and a pencil-thin offensive line would both be concerns if the 42-year-old made the leap to East Rutherford.
The only thing Brady loves more than teasing us about his plans for 2020 is filling his shelf with Lombardi Trophies. Most of the teams linked to Brady will be hard-pressed to contend next season—except one. The Titans—who punched the final nail in New England’s 2019 coffin with an upset victory in January’s Wild Card slate—are unquestionably a team on the rise. Tennessee has thrived under first-time head coach and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who often doubled as a goal-line tight end (10 career touchdown grabs) early in Brady’s career.
Conveniently enough, the Titans also have a need at quarterback with Ryan Tannehill and Marcus Mariota both headed for free agency. Depending on if the Titans are able to re-sign Derrick Henry (easily the most coveted back among this year’s free-agent crop), Brady would likely serve as a game-manager in Tennessee, which might be the best use of him at this late stage in his career. However, the Titans had difficulty protecting the quarterback at times last season (56 sacks permitted), a shortcoming that could be exacerbated with walk candidate Jack Conklin headed to the open market.