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With rest of professional sports world in limbo, NFL refuses to surrender center stage | COMMENTARY

Somehow, with the rest of the sports world in a state of suspended animation, the NFL continues to crank out huge headlines and give the nation’s self-quarantined sports fans a break from reality.

While the other three major professional sports were padlocking their training sites and arenas, the NFL and its players union finalized a new collective bargaining agreement over the weekend that not only guarantees a full decade of labor peace, but will extend the length of the regular season to 17 games and expand the playoff format.

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That was a pretty big news story, but it was dwarfed on Tuesday when Tom Brady posted a farewell message to the New England Patriots organization and its public, thanking everyone for their support over a 20-year career during which he made a compelling case to be considered the best quarterback in the history of football.

He is certainly the most successful, and his escape to Tampa Bay will leave a crack in the New England sports psyche as wide as that weird wind tunnel at the north end of Gillette Stadium. Just imagine being a Patriots fan, which is a dicey psychological proposition to begin with, and trying to figure out why the greatest living sports figure in your region would rather be in a town that is better known for its strip clubs than its football team.

Frankly, I don’t get any of this.

The NFL Players Association appeared to be dead set against expanding the regular-season schedule when the concept was officially proposed by owners — with an 18-game format — last year. The players rightly believed that more games would mean more injuries, but I guess in the midst of the current pandemic, the whole concussion/CTE thing no longer seems like that big of a deal.

The playoff expansion was a foregone conclusion, since the NFL is so hell-bent on squeezing every last postseason dollar out of the television networks that no one should be surprised when it ultimately goes full NCAA-style single-elimination tournament. The only question is whether it decides to expand to 64 teams first.

No, I’m not serious. I’m sure Roger Goodell will hold the line at just all 32 of the existing franchises making the playoffs.

We actually should be pretty impressed. While the rest of the world is knee-deep in a global economic meltdown and most of the professional sports world is in a global shutdown, the NFL is still cranking out the Benjamins. With everybody stuck in their homes and not a game to be found anywhere, the only thing left to do is turn next month’s NFL draft into a three-day pay-per-view event.

Back to Tom Terrific. This has been brewing for a while, of course, and Pats fans have been stocking up on anti-depressants since he signed that last contract that kept the door open for him to become a free agent this winter.

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There had been a subterranean power struggle going on with coach Bill Belichick for years, but you can put up with a lot when you’re going to the Super Bowl every other season. This year, it was apparent that Brady was dissatisfied with his supporting cast and, of course, Belichick wasn’t going to give him so much money that it endangered the team’s ability to remain a perpetually elite team.

The surprise is not that he left, but where he’s going. Everybody thought he was headed back to the West Coast, perhaps to channel Johnny Unitas with the Chargers, but there is some logic in his decision to join Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers. With their strong receiving corps and deceptively strong defense, they’ll enter next season as an instant Super Bowl contender … if he’s still Tom Brady.

No doubt, Belichick was also eager for a new challenge, but I’m betting that they both end up regretting this day.

In the meantime, the Ravens’ 2020 schedule just got a little easier, since they’ll be traveling to New England at some point, and their defense just got a lot better with the weekend deal that netted top-flight edge defender Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars and agreeing to a deal with former Rams D-lineman Michael Brockers on Monday.

All might be quiet on every other sports front, but not the NFL.

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