As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enter the reality that their season is, at most, three weeks from its conclusion, there is another reality lingering over the organization: the possibility of Tom Brady's retirement.
Sources with the Bucs and close to Brady all recognize the star quarterback remains noncommittal to playing beyond this season. Although Brady could decide to play again -- he has talked about playing until he was 45, and even beyond -- it is far from a given, sources told ESPN.
Brady's departure is a topic that quietly has come up within the Tampa Bay organization for weeks now, and there has been internal uncertainty about what the future holds for the seven-time Super Bowl champion and all-time NFL passing leader.
Brady, 44, plans to take time after the season ends -- a month or longer -- to assess how he feels physically and mentally while also gauging his family's desires, sources told ESPN.
For Brady, who has one year remaining on his contract, the decision is likely to be situational: how Tampa Bay finishes this season (it ended Sunday with a 30-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional-round of the playoffs), and how the three-time league MVP feels when the season concludes. Some sources believed that if the Buccaneers repeated as Super Bowl champions, it would increase the likelihood that Brady could have walked away from the game.
Nothing about the decision has been predetermined, however. Brady knows he'll face questions about it soon, but he also wants nothing to distract him from his day-to-day pursuit of another Super Bowl title.
Sources told ESPN that Brady is happy in Tampa, while team sources added that the Bucs are similarly content. Tampa Bay's coaches and executives are unanimous in their desire to keep moving forward with Brady beyond this season, something they plan to convey to him when the season is over.
The Bucs would be willing to bend over backward to entice Brady to continue playing, if that's what he ultimately decides to do.
At times throughout this season, Brady has felt committed to returning in 2022 regardless of the outcome, simply because he feels he owes it to an organization that doesn't have a clear quarterback succession plan, sources said. But with a long 2021 season nearing its conclusion, Brady now plans to enter the offseason wide open about his future.
The length of Brady's career couldn't be any more evident than this weekend; he is older than the head coaches of the other three teams that entered the NFC divisional playoff round (Green Bay's Matt LaFleur is 42, San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan is 42 and the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay is 35).
Those close to Brady -- and those with the team -- are making a clear effort to enjoy and appreciate each game he plays as they recognize that any one of them could be his last.
Despite injuries and suspensions to several of the Bucs' key offensive players this season, Brady appeared in all 17 games this season and led the league with 5,316 passing yards -- a career high -- and 43 touchdown passes.