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Tom Brady retires again, this time maybe for good, and the NFC South’s quarterback carousel could be wild

The Falcons finally beat one of their most annoying foes, and now he’s heading to the studio.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Tom Brady is gone. Again.

The inescapable quarterback put together what amounted to two separate Hall of Fame careers in the NFL, bedeviling dozens of teams and fanbases along the way, but he retired on Wednesday. After deciding to return for a season that wound up being a miserable slog for him, one that ended in a lopsided playoff defeat, he will not be landing with Sean Payton’s Broncos or the Miami Dolphins or the ever-hopeful Las Vegas Raiders.

I’ll just repeat what I wrote a year ago when Brady briefly retired, because it’s just as true today:

I’m not going to engage in any hagiography with Brady’s career—you won’t be able to escape that, either—but suffice to say Falcons fans has plenty of reason to dislike him and did. His retirement is the sole gift he’s ever given this fanbase, and while it’s extremely belated, we’ll take it. That retirement also completes a startling, speedy detonation of the NFC South, one that has seen the winningest coach in the division hang it up and one of the best quarterbacks of all time leave, and once the dust settles there will be four weakness-riddled football teams in this division.

As is the case with a good many careers, Brady did not get his storybook ending. He retired briefly, returned amidst a very public divorce, and endured a season where the Buccaneers won the NFC South at 8-9, backing into the playoffs in the worst division in football. That season ended on two sour notes, with Brady playing in (but not finishing) the Week 18 game against the Falcons and watching from the sidelines as the franchise earned their first-ever win in a game he started. Tampa Bay then was thumped 31-14 by the Cowboys, and that was that. It would be fair to say that this year, with all its reminders of football mortality even for legends, probably took its toll on him.

There will be no way to escape Brady, not today and probably not ever. His career will be endlessly celebrated by anyone who didn’t come to loathe him over the years. Brady will soon be a fixture on FOX Sports, yucking it up with the crew and casually reminding us of his Super Bowl wins and glory days. Mute buttons exist for a reason, though, and he can’t hurt us in the same way from the booth that he did on the field. Those highlight reels and casual mentions of certain soul-destroying February days are going nowhere, but time is at least some kind of salve for those stings, too.

The important thing is that we don’t have to wonder whether Brady might land back in the NFC South, providing some sort of last-minute jolt to a would-be contender in the division. This

How the retirement impacts the NFC South

As I mentioned above, this is a deeply unsettled division, just as it was a year ago when Brady sort-of retired. Only the Falcons and maybe Saints have a would-be starting quarterback under contract in Desmond Ridder and Jameis Winston, and neither guy is guaranteed to be under center Week 1. Only the Falcons ($56.4 million estimated today) have any cap space to work with in 2023, as the Panthers are close to $10 million underwater and the Buccaneers and Saints are 31st and 32nd in cap space, each in the red by more than $55 million.

Brady was unlikely to return to the Buccaneers, but there was always the chance the Panthers or Saints could’ve made a run at him, hoping to squeeze a season of contention out of the aging but still annoyingly effective quarterback. This eliminates even that remote possibility, and we’re left to face the worst division in football having multiple teams with no clear path to immediate improvement. The Buccaneers, in particular, seem likely to return to irrelevance over the short term.

Atlanta is the best-positioned team here by a wide margin, which makes nailing this offseason so crucial. The Panthers are likely to be feisty under Frank Reich if they can find a quarterback, the Saints are unlikely to go a way entirely, and the Bucs have talent even if they don’t have any easy way to peel a top quarterback loose from the draft or another team. Only the Falcons have a potential young starter at quarterback, plenty of draft capital, and the money to make sweeping improvements to a roster that has major holes and still has managed to stay reasonably competitive. It’s fair to say that Atlanta’s window to contend is wide open in a way it has not been for a while.

They’ll do so in an NFL where quarterbacks who have been at the top of the heap for years or even decades are either nearing retirement or actually retiring, and the end of Brady’s career is one Falcons fans surely welcome.