On the first day of February, the man who is arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history — is it really even arguable? — announced his retirement. That decision by Tom Brady, in almost any other year, would’ve been the biggest, most earth-shaking story of the offseason.
But this has hardly been just any other year.
Consider what happened next: Exactly one month later, on the first day of March, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians was speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine when he said the “door is never closed” on Brady unretiring. At the time, no one really believed that would ever happen.
Twelve days later, Brady unretired.
Seventeen days after that, Arians retired.
If that seems like a head-spinning turn of events … well, it was really nothing. Because in that 58-day span, during which the Bucs lost their franchise quarterback, regained their franchise quarterback and then lost their Super Bowl-winning coach, here’s just a sample of what else happened around the league:
Russell Wilson, after years of making it seem like he wanted out of Seattle, was traded to Denver. Carson Wentz, one year after being traded from Philadelphia to Indianapolis, was shipped off to Washington (where their team had just been re-named the Commanders). Deshaun Watson, still facing 22 civil suits for an array of sexual misconduct and sexual assault allegations, was traded from Houston to Cleveland. And the Browns didn’t just give up six picks including three first-rounders to get him. They also gave him an incredible and unprecedented five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
(This would be a good time to take a deep breath. Because there’s more. A whole lot more.)
The Browns also acquired receiver Amari Cooper from Dallas. Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended one year for gambling on NFL games. Aaron Rodgers, after years of making noise about leaving Green Bay, got a three-year, $150 million deal to stay with the Packers. Three days after that, the Pack shockingly traded away his No. 1 receiver, Davante Adams, to Las Vegas where the Raiders gave him a five-year, $141 million contract.
Matt Ryan, an institution in Atlanta, was traded to Indianapolis after the Falcons had gone all-in to try and beat the Browns for Watson. Chicago traded Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams traded Robert Woods to Tennessee after signing Allen Robinson II to replace him. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was reunited via trade with his college QB Kyler Murray in Arizona.
And that doesn’t even include all the big names that switched teams in free agency, like Von Miller (to Buffalo) and Chandler Jones (Las Vegas). Heck, even the lowly Jaguars spent nearly $200 million in guaranteed money to lure players like guard Brandon Scherff to try and quickly remake their roster now that former head coach Urban Meyer is gone.
All that happened in a wild, 58-day span, between Brady’s “retirement” on Feb. 1 and Arians’ retirement on March 30. And no, that is absolutely not all. Because New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton announced his retirement a few days before Brady. And two days after Payton’s retirement, the NFL’s wacky trade wheel spun again when the Kansas City Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to Miami, just days after they nearly traded him to the New York Jets.
The entire NFL offseason was like a drunken spin on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. “It was a little bit crazy,” Saints GM Mickey Loomis said. “I don’t think that happens every year.”
No, but it’s beginning to become more of a trend in a league that once was known for stability, especially among top-tier players and really especially among franchise quarterbacks. It was unthinkable, as recently as 10 years ago, that a franchise quarterback would change teams, except perhaps at the tail end of his career.
Now, stars — and yes, quarterbacks — are bouncing all over the map as teams and general managers look for instant gratification. Five-year rebuilding plans are a thing of the past. Now it’s more like five months.
And if you ask most NFL people who started that trend, they point straight at the Los Angeles Rams. As soon as they moved from St. Louis to L.A., their GM, Les Snead, began an all-out, mortgage-the-future blitz to try and build a champion in time for the opening of their glitzy new stadium in 2020. He super-charged the trade market, didn’t blink about giving up what many GMs believe are too-precious-to-discard, high-round draft picks.
And it worked. The Rams reached the Super Bowl and lost in 2018. Then they traded their franchise quarterback, Jared Goff, to Detroit for the Lions’ franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. And they spent as much as they could to surround him with a quality team. The result, of course, was exactly what they wanted. They won a Super Bowl championship in their own building back in February.
No one cares that the Rams last had a first-round draft pick in 2016 and won’t have another until 2024.
“People realized you could win a Super Bowl without draft picks,” says Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “The Rams kind of made that statement.”
That, actually, was only part of the statement. The other was something the NFL has known for years. Teams generally can’t win a championship without an elite quarterback. So why wait to draft and develop one like in the olden days when so many are suddenly available via trade?
Are they expensive? Sure. But if a franchise quarterback is everything in this game, is there any price that isn’t worth it? And given the short shelf life for GMs and coaches, especially with losing teams, it’s easy to understand why they’d be pushing their owners to go all in whenever they can.
“Well, there’s an old saying,” says Commanders head coach Ron Rivera. “What are you willing to pay for that Major League Baseball card? Whatever you pay, that’s what you think the value is. Does anybody really care what was traded for Matthew Stafford last year? No.”
That’s why so many teams — the Commanders, Panthers, Falcons and Browns — were willing to hold their noses, close their eyes to the allegations against Watson and open up their pocket books for an elite, 26-year-old quarterback. And it’s why, after Watson informed the Browns he was choosing someone else, that they responded with an offer he couldn’t refuse — that enormous, unprecedented contract that has angered many owners and GMs around the league and likely has changed the price of franchise quarterbacks forever.
Sure, the risk is high. But once the Browns determined they weren’t going to win a championship with Baker Mayfield, their options to replace him were limited. They could draft someone and wait a few years to see if they could develop another Watson, or they could just open up the vault and get Watson himself.
And really, they needed a quarterback like him just to stay afloat in their own conference. The offseason has been crazy for the entire NFL, but it’s been particularly wild in the AFC — a conference that already had two loaded teams in Buffalo and Kansas City and two of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. Oh, and Justin Herbert in Los Angeles. And Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. And Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, where the Bengals rode his arm all the way to the Super Bowl where they narrowly lost to the Rams.
Now the AFC has kept Watson and added Ryan in Indianapolis and Wilson in Denver. And the Browns added Cooper to their offense, too. The Dolphins got Hill to help out Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. The Raiders got Adams for Derek Carr.
Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, is heading into his second year in Jacksonville where the Jags stocked up with the likes of Scherff, tight end Evan Engram and receiver Christian Kirk. Heck, even the Jets re-loaded on offense with a bunch of new weapons and a fortified offensive line for their young quarterback, Zach Wilson.
The AFC teams that don’t have an elite quarterback and a true No. 1 receiver? They don’t have a chance.
“Yeah, someone used the term ‘arms race,’” says Bills head coach Sean McDermott. “I can’t disagree, I guess, by the moves that were made. You’ve got seven or eight elite quarterbacks in the AFC. Usually you have three or four on one side, two or three on the other. So it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s the next step? Where’s the next competitive advantage?’”
While the NFL’s high-octane offseason carousel ride is probably over for now — mostly because teams have run out of salary cap space and time — there will, undoubtedly, be a “next step,” especially for teams that didn’t get a quarterback chair when the music stopped. The Carolina Panthers have spent two years searching for a quarterback, but they are still stuck with Sam Darnold. The Seattle Seahawks traded Wilson but only replaced him with Drew Lock.
In fact, objectively, half of the NFL teams don’t currently have either an elite quarterback locked in long term, or a young quarterback they are committed to for the next several seasons. And all of them — the Panthers, Seahawks, Giants, Texans, Saints, maybe the Eagles and Vikings, too — will have to decide whether to try and find and grow their own (which could waste three or four years) or dip into the trade/free-agent pool.
And there are no signs of that pool drying up any time soon. Murray has made a lot of noise about wanting a new contract in Arizona*. Jackson is seeking a mega-deal from Baltimore, too. And while it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine either of those teams letting go of those young stars, no matter what they get offered in return, it’s hard to rule out anything in the NFL anymore.
There could be less expensive options, too. Jimmy Garoppolo’s days are numbered in San Francisco after the 49ers drafted Trey Lance third overall in 2021. Mayfield may be damaged goods, but he’s still only 27.
And then there’s Tom Brady, whose 40-day retirement reportedly included a wild flirtation with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who may or may not have tried to hatch a plan where Brady and Sean Payton would both retire and then would turn up together in Miami a few months later. That truly would’ve been the wildest move in the NFL’s wildest offseason.
It reportedly had a chance to happen, too, until former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores — who was fired in early January despite two straight winning seasons in Miami — filed a racial discrimination suit against the Dolphins, the Giants and the NFL. He alleged, among other things, that Ross tried to pay Flores to tank a season when he was hired to coach the Dolphins in 2019.
No one, by the way, will be surprised if Brady and Payton take a ride on the NFL’s rumor mill next offseason, too — perhaps in a package as the NFL’s ultimate, franchise-saving dynamic duo. And there could be a whole lot more. There are questions about where some of the NFL’s best receivers — like Seattle’s DK Metcalf* and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel* — will ultimately land. Their futures were also part of the wild speculation that made this offseason so mind-bending.
What this proves is that while the NFL may still be the ultimate “team sport” — and the art of building that full team is still complicated and important — this is increasingly becoming a league of stars, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. As great as defensive tackle Aaron Donald is, Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp deserve a large share of the credit for the Rams’ Super Bowl win. Getting the right quarterback and the right mix on offense is what finally put the Rams over the top.
If you’ve got players like that, you’re set. If not, it’s not feasible anymore to just wait around for players to develop. The football world is just moving too fast, and aggressiveness has become the only way to succeed in the league. Both the Chiefs and the Bills traded up in the NFL Draft to land their franchise quarterbacks when Mahomes and Allen came out of college. And even after the Bills knew they had something special in Allen, they still went out and traded for receiver Stefon Diggs.
Yes, a defense is still important, and so is an offensive line and a running game. But the NFL basically stood around and watched as the Patriots won six Super Bowl titles and nine AFC championships in 18 seasons largely because they had Tom Brady. Yes, Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of his generation. But Brady was what really separated the Patriots from the rest of the NFL, which he showed when he won another Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa Bay.
Mahomes was the successor to Brady in the AFC with back-to-back Super Bowl trips. Now Allen and Burrow are threatening their own runs of dominance too. Every team that doesn’t have a quarterback like that wishes it did and likely understands that’s their ticket to contention.
And everyone is starting to realize there is no price that’s too high to pay for that.
That’s why building a team the old-fashioned way seems so … old-fashioned. The Bengals sort of did it that way, but it took a lot of luck and pain. They ultimately needed a 2-14 season in a year when a franchise quarterback like Burrow was coming out. And they still needed one more bad season (4-11-1) to get them in position to land his top receiver in Ja’Marr Chase, which helped put them over the top.
Even the Patriots have started to realize the urgency, spending far more in free agency over the past two seasons than they had done before. And the lure of a quick fix isn’t just for a 70-year-old coach like Belichick who is looking for one last championship run. Owners are getting older too, and they’re tired of waiting. The entire sports world is increasingly impatient. Coaches and GMs don’t want to spend years developing young players for someone else to take over in the future.
They all know the two-word motto of this league has become: Win now.
“It’s always kind of been,” said Mike McDaniel, the new Dolphins head coach. “The coaches, whether you guys realize it or not, are very aware of everyone’s impatience.”
They should be, because that impatience is growing — and made worse for some by the seemingly quick-turnaround stories of teams like the Bengals. The idea that coaches deserve three or four years to implement a plan and GMs should get four or five years to see how the talent they accumulate can develop is all but obsolete. Don’t like your coach, your quarterback, your No. 1 receiver? Go make a deal for somebody else’s.
And while McDaniel is right that there’s no set formula for how to quickly build a winner — “I think there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat,” he said — if you’ve got the cap room and draft picks to spare, the quicker the better. Because anyone could be available at any time. The Chiefs were negotiating a long-term deal with Hill just days before they put him on the market. And who would’ve ever thought Rodgers would re-sign with Green Bay one day, and his best receiver — some might argue his only reliable receiver — would be shipped out three days later?
But that’s the new normal, and it’s why nothing can be ruled out anymore. Like those reports that Brady and Payton were trying to reverse-engineer their way to Miami, and the murmur around the NFL that Brady might end up a Dolphin next season whether Payton joins him or not. Sure, the Bucs don’t want to let him go, and Fox Sports has already signed him to be their lead analyst whenever he does retire — for a whopping 10 years and $375 million! — and the Dolphins already have a quarterback in Tagovailoa, and the price could be crazy and tampering charges surely would be thrown around.
After this nutty offseason, though, would anyone be surprised to see Brady in a Dolphins uniform sooner than later?
“Tom Brady?” McDaniel asked. “The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady? The Super Bowl winner? No. That has not been in the conversation at all. I think that’s what you call ‘fake news.’”
Is it? Is it really? Because after this crazy offseason with so many quarterbacks and stars changing teams at such a dizzying pace and so much money and so many draft picks being thrown around, it really is getting hard to tell.
*Editor's Note: Kyler Murray, DK Metcalf, and Deebo Samuel all signed contract extensions more than two months after this story was filed.