Antonio Brown won’t go away. He is the most relevant player right now in the NFL, and it’s a terrible thing to have to admit. It’s also fascinating to watch him disrupt the norm in this league of anonymity. But mostly, it’s terrible.
As impossible as it is to overshadow the start of an NFL season, there was Brown, taking over without playing a snap and dominating headlines with his bizarre escape from Oakland. His over-the-top actions were foolish, but also cunning, as he fell forward from a competitive standpoint in forcing his release from the rebuilding Raiders and signing with the six-time champion New England Patriots. He set a $30-million guarantee on fire, only to recoup half of it mere hours later while also joining a team that might be unstoppable with him.
Over the past six weeks, Brown has been on a rampage of instability. It started with his frostbitten feet. Then he threatened to quit football because he can no longer play in his favorite, outdated helmet. And if that weren’t enough drama, he worked overtime last week: confronting Oakland General Manager Mike Mayock over fines; getting suspended; apologizing to the team; getting reinstated; posting a YouTube hype video that included a recording of a private conversation with Coach Jon Gruden; taking to social media again to finish burning the bridge; getting released; joining forces with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
You don’t know whether Brown needs help or whether the concern should be reserved for the rest of the NFL. You can’t possibly predict how this ends. Will Brown’s mercurial behavior and defiance put a dent in the Patriot Way? Or will Brady, who often has won with merely decent wide receiver talent, take his agelessness to the extreme now that he has the most prolific receiver of this era in his huddle?
It’s only certain that this Brown story will continue to consume the NFL. On Sunday, despite the exploits of Lamar Jackson and the implosion of the Cleveland Browns, Brown garnered ample attention without playing. The Kansas City Chiefs remain the NFL’s most exciting product, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott just had a “pay me” performance for the ages, and Kyler Murray was horrendous early and mesmerizing late in his debut. Still, Brown was the story. Week 1 even featured the Antonio Bowl as New England, his team-to-be, dismantled Pittsburgh, his former team playing without him for the first time. And on Monday night, the Raiders were set to open their season without him, which feels like a major loss even though he never played a down in Oakland.
The sideshow is bad for the NFL. The fact that Brown keeps getting good opportunities doesn’t speak well for the league, either. Sure, Brown is a wonderful, Hall of Fame talent whose route-running and knack for reaching the end zone afford him significant leeway. But how many quality second chances can one player receive? It would be one thing if the Miami Dolphins felt so desperate for receiving help that they turned to Brown. But the Patriots? In a bid for further domination, they risk bringing in a player who can create team-wrecking chaos.
Brown deserved banishment to some NFL outpost for one final chance. Instead, he’s in the best situation of his career. In getting his Raiders contract voided, he lost a lot of money to get to New England, but he salvaged the entire fiasco nicely and quickly. It feels disturbingly premeditated. ESPN reported that Brown solicited advice from social media consultants on the, um, best way to get released from Oakland. And this whole Patriot parachute is curious and perhaps worth a tampering inquiry.
While New England considered trading for Brown when he was still with Pittsburgh and likely vetted him last March, it doesn’t make sense that they would move so fast with such a volatile player, even if they feared a competitive market for his services. For every entity involved – Brown and agent Drew Rosenhaus, the Raiders, the Patriots and maybe other potential suitors – I’m starting to think the sideshow might have masked the open secret that Brown was about to be released. I’m starting to think the timeline was much longer than it seemed. The question is whether the Patriots alone had special insight into Brown’s manipulation. At the very least, it looks suspicious, and with Brown, you can’t rule out anything.
On the flip side, it’s somehow easier to conjure a conspiracy theory than face the reality that Brown, one of the sport’s elite talents, has lost all impulse control. And in their competitiveness and negligence, NFL teams are enabling his bad behavior.
For years, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin tolerated Brown’s antics because he is so productive and hard-working on the field, and Brown rewarded him by quitting on the team at the end of last season. Gruden was delighted to trade for Brown, hoping his presence would help fix quarterback Derek Carr and expedite the Raiders’ rebuilding. The partnership didn’t even make it to the season opener. Now, New England hopes that Belichick’s no-nonsense style and Brady’s leadership can help make this work.
Many compare it to the Patriots’ trade for Randy Moss 12 years ago, which propelled their offense to another dimension. But that’s unfair to Moss. Inconsistent effort was his primary issue, but he listened to reason and fell in line with the Patriots’ culture rather easily. Brown is a more difficult personality. He’s a complicated human being who is easy to fall for because he’s a worker, but you can lose him without realizing you had done anything wrong.
I keep thinking back to the phone conversation with Gruden that Brown exposed. Gruden is pleading with the receiver to get it together. He’s being compassionate, calling Brown the “most misunderstood [expletive] human being in my entire life I’ve ever met.” And then he’s almost begging when he makes the request, “Please stop this [expletive] and just play football.”
Everyone who watches the NFL should be at that point with Brown. No more disputes. No more insubordination. No more buffoonery. Just play football – and give us back this NFL season.