End of the road is in sight for Tom Brady, and it's painful to watch
The fantasy is all but dead. The career will not end with confetti falling or your hero riding into the sunset. Like so many before him, Tom Brady didn't know when to walk away.

It happens this way for a lot of the great ones. To Johnny Unitas on the bench in San Diego and Joe Namath on his backside in Los Angeles. The calendar is an unforgiving companion for the athlete who dares to challenge the inevitable.

He almost pulled it off, you know. Came closer than anyone before him. Brady was doing things on the football field - is still doing things on the football field - that no one imagined a quarterback could pull off as he transitioned to middle age. He won a Super Bowl at 43, led the NFL in passing yards at 44 and gambled with his legacy at 45.

"The things he's done over his career? The type of guy he is, the type of man he is, the football player, the type of leader he is? This is definitely hard," said linebacker Lavonte David. "He's feeling all the same emotions we're feeling. Someway, somehow, we've got to try to turn this thing around because we've got the guy who can do it."

Once upon a time that may have been true, but after Thursday night's 27-22 loss to Baltimore it's getting harder and harder to believe. Brady threw for 325 yards and extended a franchise record for consecutive passes without an interception to 315, but he didn't win. And that, more than anything, is what always defined the TB12 brand.

He wasn't fast, he didn't have a cannon arm, he wasn't a swashbuckler as a quarterback. But Brady was without peer when it came to knowing how to string victories together.

There was a time when the world wondered if it was Brady or coach Bill Belichick who was most responsible for the unparalleled run of Super Bowls in New England. Brady won that argument when he came to Tampa Bay and promptly turned a 7-9 team into a Super Bowl champion in 2020.

A 13-4 encore with more than 5,300 passing yards and a respectable postseason run in 2021 did nothing to sully the Brady reputation, but this season has turned into one long regret after Brady retired in February and then unretired in March. His marriage has cruelly become gossip page fodder, and his commitment to excellence has been regrettably questioned.

He still is capable of putting up better-than-average numbers, but the crispness, the precision, the knack for clutch moments have vanished. Brady had a half-dozen head-scratching throws on Thursday night that could have turned the game's momentum but instead sailed over receivers' heads or bounced at their feet.

Whether it's a weak supporting cast, a bum shoulder, a sore finger or the clock finally telling him no, Brady does not look like the quarterback who outplayed his peers and outlasted his expiration date.

"Nobody is pointing the finger at Tom Brady. It's the whole team," said receiver Mike Evans, who was open for a potential touchdown in the first quarter but had the pass fly over his head. "It's a team game - the ultimate team game. It's not just one player, it never has been."

This season will not come close to undoing all that Brady has accomplished, but it will soil that once-unblemished narrative of success. After 22 consecutive seasons without a losing record, Brady's Bucs have dropped three in a row and the hope for a turnaround is quickly fading.

Maybe it was that realization that kept Brady at his locker long after most of his teammates had changed and left Thursday night. He had a whispered conversation with backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who later helped Brady pull his shirt and padding over his head.

Eventually, he took a long drink from his thermos and pulled on his clothes without bothering to shower. By the time he finally made his way to the podium for a postgame news conference, head coach Todd Bowles was already pulling out of his parking space and heading home.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. And, for the eternally optimistic, there is still time for the story line to change. But this is beginning to feel like a long, slow march toward heartache. "I don't think anyone feels good," Brady said. "Lost four of five so not where we want to be. But we haven't earned it. You've got to go earn it."

For what it's worth, Brady has already earned the benefit of doubt. If he thinks the season can turn around, he deserves that shot. And if he thinks there is a happy ending to be had, the least we can do is wish him well. He's given football fans more than 20 years of memories and we should all be grateful. But for the first time, we should also be realistic.

John Romano, The Tampa Bay Times, published 28 October 2022