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Antonio Brown was gone but far from forgotten Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. That was ensured by his venting Sunday morning via Twitter with a string of posts that included a mention of the prostitution-related charges faced by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in Florida.
But no NFL team is better equipped to move on, and move on quickly, from such an episode than the Patriots, they of the “On to the [fill in the next opponent]” mantra of Coach Bill Belichick. In this case, that was the pitiable New York Jets minus their starting quarterback, Sam Darnold. So Sunday’s task was not exactly formidable.
It wasn’t as if there was any doubt that the Patriots would beat the Jets. They could pretty much have picked their preferred final score. It was 20-0 and halftime and 30-0 in the third quarter. The Patriots gave quarterback Tom Brady part of the fourth quarter off and coasted to a 30-14 triumph at Gillette Stadium to improve their record to 3-0.
But it was a necessary exercise for the Patriots to take the next step after Friday’s release of Brown, the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver whose signing had been announced only 11 days earlier. And there are bigger remaining issues, especially after wide receiver Julian Edelman left Sunday’s victory with what was called a chest injury.
“It’s hard and it’s just part of football season,” Brady said after the game. “Attrition plays a part. … It’s just the nature of the sport. It’s a tough sport.”
No other NFL team is as singular in its focus as the Patriots are. No other team is as unwavering its football discipline. No other team is as ruthlessly competitive. That’s why the Patriots are six-time Super Bowl champions with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback, even as the supporting cast of players around Brady changes constantly.
But Brown has become so disruptive that this was a unique challenge even for Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick cut short a news conference Friday, before Brown’s release, because of a string of questions about Brown. A team official and Belichick had done the same thing at a news conference the previous week because of unrelenting questions from media members about Brown.
That’s extremely rare for Belichick, who usually is able to fend off unwanted questions from the media with his dour nonanswers. One veteran Belichick watcher could recall it happening only one other time during his Patriots tenure. This is a coach and an organization, remember, that endured the Spygate and Deflategate scandals. For the normally unflappable Belichick to become so flappable is telling.
It is Belichick who is said to have wanted to sign Brown, following Brown’s release by the Oakland Raiders, for football reasons. Kraft did not stand in the way of what was, at that point, a football decision. When Brown’s spot on the roster became more than a football issue with the emergence of accusations by two women of rape, sexual assault and intimidation, team officials began their deliberations about the possibility of releasing Brown while the NFL conducted its investigation and contemplated the prospect of placing him on paid leave via the commissioner’s exempt list.
The Patriots kept Brown on the roster for one game before the team’s decision-makers came to a consensus Friday, after the news of the second accuser and the texts, and released him. There remains a potential fight with Brown and the NFL Players Association over the guaranteed money in Brown’s contract. The deal included a $9 million signing bonus, the first $5 million of which was to be paid Monday, and also contained contract language prohibiting Brown from criticizing the team or its ownership and from acting in a manner to undermine the public’s respect for the team.
The Patriots clearly were displeased about Brown’s Twitter reference to Kraft, who is challenging the misdemeanor charges against him in court in Florida and has not been convicted. He also has not been disciplined by the NFL, with the criminal case still pending while the prosecution appeals a crucial ruling in Kraft’s favor that suppressed video evidence. The Patriots, through a spokesman, declined to respond before the game to Brown’s social-media comments.
But there also are football implications to Brown’s quick exit. The depth of Brady’s pass-catching corps was an issue in training camp, especially given the offseason retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski. But then wide receiver Josh Gordon was reinstated by the NFL from his latest suspension under the substance abuse policy and Brown was added. Suddenly, Brady appeared to have a surplus at wideout with Edelman, Gordon and Brown.
Without Brown, the wide receiver spot becomes a question mark again. Edelman left the field during the final minute of the first half Sunday after a hard fall when being tackled. He initially was called questionable to return before later being ruled out for the remainder of the game. If the injury is significant, that’s a major problem for Brady and the Patriots.
The state of the injury-depleted offensive line also is an issue. But Brady is playing well, and finished with 306 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. Belichick provided no update on Edelman’s injury status during a postgame news conference in which he cited “some good things” but also “a lot of things we can work on.” Belichick was back to being Belichick, clearly.
The coach is as resourceful as ever. The defense is very good. The Patriots didn’t allow a touchdown this season until the Jets scored in the third quarter Sunday on the recovery of a muffed punt.
The Patriots are not the team that they could have been with Brown if things had worked out with him. The rest of the NFL now has a chance, albeit perhaps a slim one. They are still the Patriots, after all, and they were right back to doing their thing Sunday.