The NFL offseason is four days old, and the biggest elephant in the room remains the retirement and potential unretirement of one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
The 44-year-old seven-time Super Bowl champion announced his retirement from the NFL on Feb.1. Almost immediately after his announcement, whispers started circulating that Brady would return and might have designs on finding a way to finish his career with his hometown team, the 49ers. Brady has left open for a return should he get the itch.
"I'm just going to take things as they come. I think that's the best way to put it, and I don't think anything, you know, you never say never," Brady told Jim Gray on their "Let's Go!" podcast. "At the same time, I know that ... I feel very good about my decision. I don't know how I'll feel six months from now."
As Brady kicks his feet up for the first time in two decades, the 49ers plan to trade Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason and turn coach Kyle Shanahan's offense over to Trey Lance for the 2022 season.
Theories have been thrown out that suggest the 49ers will/could trade Garoppolo to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who now need a starting quarterback, for Brady or the rights to Brady should the 44-year-old remember he still has a lot left in the tank.
Because Brady is Brady and the NFL offseason is long, the Brady-to-San Francisco talk isn't going anywhere. So, let's look at what we know, why it could make sense, and why it's hard to see it materializing.
First off, Brady is retired. Yes, there's always the potential for the Brett Favre about-face, but for now, the 44-year-old is done.
As for the 49ers, they traded two first-round picks to move up in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Lance. They did that for two reasons. They wanted an upgrade over Garoppolo. Someone young, healthy, with a high ceiling and who Shanahan can mold into the ideal signal-caller for his offense.
Turning things over to Lance and trading Garoppolo also allows the 49ers to reset their cap situation. Trading Garoppolo will give the 49ers $25 million in cap savings. For a team with 21 players set to be free agents and others who have earned raises, that's a nice chunk of change.
The 49ers are fresh off an NFC Championship Game appearance with Garoppolo playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb. San Francisco has a top-tier roster and likely would have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl if it had an upgrade at quarterback.
Brady still was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at age 44 and showed no signs of slippage. That cliff never came. He finished fifth in EPA per play during the regular season. He threw for 5,316 yards, 43 touchdowns, and only 12 interceptions. During the Bucs' Divisional Round loss to the Rams, Brady erased a 24-point deficit in the second half and had the Bucs in a position to go to overtime before the defense gave up a last-second field goal.
He was an elite quarterback. Should he want to come back, it's something the 49ers would have to entertain. In a vacuum, you'd be foolish not to want Brady, still at the top of his game, as the quarterback of a team with a stacked roster that includes the best left tackle in Trent Williams, an elite tight end in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel.
Lance has an incredible amount of talent but still has a lot of growing to do. The 21-year-old impressed behind the scenes during his rookie season but couldn't do enough to take the job from a banged-up Garoppolo. The 49ers believe they can win the Super Bowl next season, and Brady would give them a better chance than Lance. It's not debatable.
Also, it's hard to see how Lance, and by extension, the 49ers' future, wouldn't benefit from a year behind the greatest quarterback of all time. Once again, not debatable.
Now, let's get into the other side of the coin.
We went over the financial issues. Acquiring Brady, even at his modest base salary, would mean the 49ers either have to make tough roster decisions elsewhere, or they restructure some contracts to fit everyone in, and the bill comes due later. See: the Bucs.
There's also the issue of acquiring Brady. The Bucs have his rights and will keep him on the active roster until June 1. If Brady is moved from the active roster to non-roster status before June 1, then the Bucs will incur a $32 million dead cap hit for the 2022 season. For a team already facing cap hell, that's a gut punch. If Brady is moved to non-roster status after June 1, the Bucs can spread out that dead cap hit for $8 million in 2022 and $24 million in 2023.
Once Brady is moved off the roster, the Bucs can either place him on the reserve-retired list and maintain his rights (they will do this) or release him (no). Brady could, in theory, work out a deal with the Bucs in which he doesn't officially retire (activate pension, etc.) until June 2, saving them from a cap mess, in exchange for being released. But that seems unlikely.
If the 49ers were interested in Brady and informed via his agent, who he shares with Garoppolo, that the 44-year-old wanted to head home, Shanahan still would want Brady around the facility as soon as possible, given that Brady needs to learn the system and get a feel for his teammates. It's Brady, so he'd engineer a lot of throwing camps on the side once he arrived, but still, timing is of the essence.
Timing also is important as far as Garoppolo is concerned. The 49ers will want to trade Garoppolo relatively soon to ensure they get the best deal possible. That deal won't be available on June 2. Trading Brady pre-June 1 would mean the Bucs would get hit with the $32 million in dead cap, so that will be a non-starter. So, the 49ers would trade Garoppolo around the start of the new league year, go through the draft and OTAs and then trade future draft capital to the Bucs for Brady? You see where we run into issues.
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I'm not saying it can't happen, but several hurdles would need to be navigated for Brady to be the 49ers' starting quarterback next season, and I'm not equipped to go through all of them or list all the ways to circumnavigate them.
Now, it also takes two to tango.
Let's remember that the 49ers said no to Brady two offseasons ago when they were fresh off a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl LVI. We have no indications that Shanahan wants to move forward with anyone but Lance. But Brady is, for now, retired, so it would be odd if there had been any smoke from Santa Clara on that front.
For my money, if Brady wants to unretire and come to the 49ers, I think Shanahan and general manager John Lynch should find a way to make it happen. The 49ers are built to win right now, and Brady would make them one of the top three Super Bowl favorites heading into next season. Kittle, Samuel, Fred Warner, and Nick Bosa are in their primes. Trent Williams is 34, and center Alex Mack is 36.
In the NFL, you have to strike when the iron is hot, and for the 49ers, it's scalding right now. Adding Brady would be the ultimate win-now move, and place the 2022 49ers firmly in the elite tier of title contenders.
Brady and the 49ers make sense as a pairing. Having the San Mateo kid deliver the franchise's sixth Super Bowl before waving goodbye to a legendary career is storybook stuff.
Never say never, but it likely remains the stuff of fairytales. For Brady and the 49ers, the timing and logistics probably won't match up.