As the dust settles from one of the most electrifying divisional rounds in recent memory, two of the NFL’s most iconic figures find themselves at a crossroads.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – the expected top vote-getters for MVP honors and long regarded as two of the best to ever play the game – now face uncertainty regarding their futures. And each holds the power to dramatically alter not only the course of his career, but also that of his franchise.
This weekend’s playoff exits no doubt came unexpectedly for both Rodgers and Brady. Outside of the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, many people throughout the NFL would have loved one more Brady-Rodgers NFC title showdown, marking a rematch of last year’s tilt in Green Bay.
Now, however, both future Hall of Famers are left to ponder their next steps.
Both quarterbacks offered noncommittal responses when asked about their plans immediately after this weekend’s defeats.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Brady told reporters. “So we’ll take it day by day and see where we’re at.”
Said Rodgers, “I’m gonna take some time and have conversations with the folks around here and take some time away and make a decision. … It’s fresh right now. It’s a little shocking, for sure.”
You can’t fault either man. Each pours so much into his craft and possesses such a singular focus that it’s understandable neither truly would have had the answers.
However, for both, the next couple of months will likely feature extensive wrangling over very complex questions.
Brady’s decision has more to do with the fact that he’s 44 and will be 45 next season, and whether he still possesses the desire to do this for a 23rd year. His debate has nothing to do with his standing with the Buccaneers franchise, or their wanting him.
The Bucs would welcome Brady back with open arms. With him under center for a third season, they would extend this dream-like window of opportunity and make yet another run at a Super Bowl.
NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND WINNERS, LOSERS: Chiefs’ coaches were brilliant; overtime rules stink
AARON RODGERS LANDING SPOTS: What could be QB’s next NFL team if he splits with Packers?
In fact, coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht’s best play is probably to give Brady some time and remind him that this roster remains one of the best in the league and that the team could very well still be playing if not for a few injuries . With renewed health and another handful of shrewd free agent and draft decisions, Tampa Bay could again find itself in the mix for a Super Bowl during the 2022 season. All the Buccaneers need is for Brady to remain Brady. Given that he just delivered one of his best statistical seasons ever, he certainly seems fully capable of such.
But will the lure of another championship chase prove enticing enough for Brady at this point? He can look back at his legendary body of work, including this two-year stint in Tampa, and say, “Mission accomplished.” He boasts six rings in New England, another in Tampa, and he gave the Bucs every opportunity to contend against tall odds this season.
As Gisele Bundchen asked her husband after last year’s Super Bowl victory, “What more do you have to prove?”
Only Brady can answer that. Now, his answer very well could be “nothing.”
It’s plausible that now he finds a stronger allure in the freedom to enjoy his family, delve more extensively into media projects such as his “Man in the Arena series” on ESPN+ and his podcast and broaden his reach in the fashion and fitness worlds.
But if that competitive fire remains just as fervent as ever, Brady should definitely delay retirement and mount a final run.
Meanwhile, Rodgers’ situation is more complex.
TRADE AARON RODGERS?: Why Packers need to consider drastic offseason move
A “beautiful mystery” has surrounded Rodgers and his Packers future the last calendar year – much by his own design. Frustrated with management and unsure of the franchise’s ability to surround him with a championship-caliber cast, he wanted out last spring. Green Bay brass had to beg for his return. He aired his grievances and reported for training camp with a reworked deal.
In so doing, he orchestrated a “Last Dance” theme to his 2021 campaign.
But rather than pull off that Jordan-esque feat, Rodgers finds himself in a familiar and undesirable position: unceremoniously and prematurely bounced from the postseason. Rodgers remains winless (0-4) against San Francisco in the playoffs and fell to 7-9 in the postseason since he won his only Super Bowl title to cap the 2010 season.
As a result, Rodgers can’t look back at his journey with the same kind of satisfaction as Brady.
The question is how another early exit colors Rodgers’ view of Green Bay.
Will the shortcoming leave a bitter taste in his mouth and motivate him to try one more time to end his Packers tenure on a better note? Or will that loss validate last offseason’s frustrations and renew his desire for an exit?
Rodgers’ decision very well could center on whether he cares more about his legacy as a Packer or simply one of the all-timers.
If it’s the former, he can meet with Matt LaFleur, who said the Packers would “be crazy not to want him back here,” and general manager Brian Gutenkunst and figure out how to help them resolve their daunting salary cap situation (they’re projected to exceed the cap by $40 million while still needing to sign All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams) and load up for one more run.
Rodgers in recent interviews had expressed a renewed appreciation for his situation in Green Bay, noting that the “grass is greener where you water it.”
But again, he uttered those words well before Saturday’s loss, a game in which Rodgers and the offense mustered only 10 points while the quarterback found himself under frequent pressure and with few reliable options beyond Adams.
If Rodgers’ reflection leads him to the conclusion that a new destination represents his greatest shot at a Super Bowl, he then must determine where. Rodgers has said that he doesn’t want to be a part of a rebuild if he continues to play, so a clear and strong head coaching/front-office pairing, talented roster and resources for free agency would seemingly rank among the necessary criteria.
Of the teams that need quarterbacks, few boast situations comparable to the situation Brady walked into with Tampa Bay. The New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders (depending on their next head coach and general manager hire) all appear to be close, however, and could prove tempting.
Would Rodgers view himself (and potentially Adams) the difference-maker for any of those teams?
Rodgers also must weigh the question of desire. He has hinted that retirement ranks among his options.
It’s clear that he has an eye on the entertainment industry and also enjoys using his platform to speak his mind. Could he outright walk away from the game rather than start all over elsewhere? Possibly, but many people who have worked with Rodgers believe his competitive fire still burns too strong for a retirement just yet.
Part of that competitive spirit involves how Rodgers believes he measures up to Brady and the other greats.
In terms of ability, Rodgers will go down as one of the most talented quarterbacks the league has ever seen. But he trails Brady and Peyton Manning in terms of a winning legacy. And that could rank among the greatest driving forces in Rodgers’ decision.
If he, too, could orchestrate and exit and hoist a Lombardi Trophy with a second franchise, he would put himself in the rarest of companies while also receiving a special sense of pride and accomplishment as he rode off into the sunset.
Two of the game’s living legends find themselves at a similar crossroads.
The lenses through which they view their legacies will likely guide their next steps.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What’s next for Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers? Breaking down QBs’ decisions