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Tom Brady is still “under contract,” but only because of an effort to create cap space

Mike Florio and Charean Williams analyze Tom Brady's latest vague answer to questions regarding a potential NFL return and why they believe he just wanted to retire from Tampa Bay, not the league.

Tuesday’s media tour de force by Bucs coach Bruce Arians was aimed, apparently, at letting quarterback Tom Brady know that, since he’s under contract to Tampa Bay for 2022, his options are to play for the Bucs or to play for no one. Beyond the question of whether it’s a mistake by Arians to essentially dare Brady to try to finagle a path to a new team, the notion that Brady is under contract through 2022 requires a fair and objective interpretation.

Brady initially signed a two-year contract with the Buccaneers in 2020. Last year, in an effort to create $19 million in cap space for a team that was trying to keep the band together, Brady signed a new two-year deal. He didn’t receive a raise over his $25 million annual compensation (a tremendous bargain for the Bucs), either last year or this year. It was simply a device to lower his number in a cap-crunched season, due to the pandemic. He didn’t have to do it. But he did it, primarily to help the team keep other players -- not to enrich himself, or even to get anything close to his actual value.

Thus, as a practical matter, his commitment to the Buccaneers has ended. Any clumsy effort to huff and puff about Brady being the exclusive property of the Buccaneers and that the team wouldn’t allow him to pick his next destination will serve only to blow down the house of whoever tries to do it.

So far, only Arians (true to form) has assumed the tough-guy posture on Brady’s contract. But Arians won’t be making the decision on this one. If/when Brady decides he wants to play again, he’ll make the first call not to Arians but to G.M. Jason Licht. If necessary, Brady will go to ownership and make the simple and persuasive case for his freedom.

Brady has brought the Buccaneers a Super Bowl trophy. They absolutely would not have it without him. (Their second choice in 2020 behind Brady was Teddy Bridgewater.) In 2021, Brady filled a stadium that had sluggish attendance, at best, for years, pouring more and more money into the coffers of the franchise.

Then there’s the fact that, if Arians wants to pick a street fight, Brady has a pair of brass knuckles that he could easily deploy. Specifically, the Buccaneers clearly tampered with Brady in 2020, to no scrutiny or consequence. While the NFL has turned a blind eye to the obvious violation of the rules (as the NFL does 95 percent of the time), if Brady decides to blurt out (on purpose) the circumstances surrounding his recruitment two years ago, the NFL may have no choice but to revisit something it previously ignored.

It shouldn’t come to that. The Buccaneers should realize that Brady has earned the right to leave if he wants. To go where he wants. While the Bucs may get a face-saving, low-round draft pick for their trouble, it would be wrong and ill-advised to stand in his way, if (as it appears) he has retired not from football but from the Buccaneers.