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Sunday football notes

Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown creates his own mess — yet again — with fake vaccine card

Tampa Bay's Antonio Brown (left) lied about his vaccination status, which selfishly put the health of their teammates and coaches at risk.Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

If only Antonio Brown had paid his chef the $10,000 he owed.

Then the chef, Steven Ruiz, wouldn’t have gone to the Tampa Bay Times last month with an accusation that Brown used a fake vaccine card to get around the NFL’s protocols.

The NFL wouldn’t have investigated claims that Brown “misrepresented his vaccination status.”

And Brown, Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards, and former Buccaneers receiver John Franklin wouldn’t have been suspended three games each by the NFL “for violating jointly developed and administered NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols,” as the league announced Thursday.

But as in his previous stops in New England, Oakland, and Pittsburgh, Brown’s wounds are entirely self-inflicted. Brown seems unwilling or unable to perform simple functions like paying his bills, or telling the truth, or not threatening people via text message. And it has done irreparable damage to his bank account and his public persona, not to mention put people’s health at risk in this situation.

Brown, Edwards, and Franklin were busted, according to an NFL source, when investigators discovered that all three had vaccination cards from Citrus County, Fla., which is about 80 miles and three counties north of Tampa.

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All three players accepted their punishment and waived their right to appeal. Though Brown is likely to miss the next two games anyway thanks to a lingering ankle injury, he still cost himself $183,333 in game checks over the next three weeks. Edwards, a key member of the secondary, will lose $141,667 over the next three games. Franklin started camp with the Buccaneers but has been a free agent since mid-August.

Brown’s suspension has naturally brought up the question of why the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers wasn’t punished with more than a small fine. But the situations are different. While Rodgers misled the public about being “immunized,” the Packers and NFL were fully aware of his unvaccinated status. Rodgers was adhering to most of the protocols behind the scenes, and he and the Packers were given slap-on-the-wrist fines for minor protocol violations.

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The three Buccaneers, meanwhile, lied to their team and the NFL, which means they went unmasked at the team facility when they shouldn’t have, got tested less frequently than they should have, and selfishly put the health of their teammates and coaches at risk. Their head coach, Bruce Arians, is 69 years old and has battled three types of cancer. Brown tested positive for COVID-19 in Week 3 and missed the game against the Rams.

Antonio Brown's long list of off-field headlines continues to grow.Mike Ehrmann/Photographer: Mike Ehrmann/Getty

Though the suspensions appear harsh, Brown and his teammates should consider themselves lucky that the NFL went relatively light on them. When Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks was caught with a fake card, the NHL suspended him for 25.6 percent of its season (21 of 82 games). The three Buccaneers are only suspended for 17.6 percent of the NFL season.

And the NFL potentially did the three Buccaneers a favor by stating that they were suspended for “violating NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols” and never mentioning fake vaccine cards in the news release. Using a fake vaccine card is a felony, subject to fines and up to five years in prison.

But Brown, Edwards, and Franklin sure created a giant headache for their employers. The Buccaneers look a bit foolish after making a big deal in training camp about being one of the first teams to have 100 percent of its players fully vaccinated, then appearing to support Brown when the allegations surfaced on Nov. 18. The team stated that it followed the “established procedure” of submitting vaccination cards and “no irregularities were observed.”

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But the Buccaneers were really just covering themselves for the impending NFL investigation. The NFL has decided not to punish the Buccaneers for not discovering the three fake vaccination cards, believing that the Buccaneers and other NFL teams can’t be reasonably expected to ferret out which vaccine cards are real and which are forgeries. HIPAA laws may also prevent the NFL from being able to verify vaccination status.

“We appreciate the League’s timely handling of this matter and recognize the importance of health and safety protocols that have been established,” the Buccaneers said in a statement. “We will continue to implement all league COVID-19 protocols.”

The incident opens the possibility that Brown, Edwards, and Franklin aren’t the only players of the 2,880 in training camp who had fake vaccine cards. The NFL says that 94.4 percent of players are fully vaccinated, but if every team has three fake cards, that would make for about 100 players across the league.

But the NFL has decided it isn’t going to expand its investigation into the other 31 teams to determine which cards are fake. The NFL says that 80 percent of players received vaccines at the team facilities. If the NFL were to look into the 20 percent that were done elsewhere, that would mean checking into approximately 576 players.

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But Brown and his teammates got busted. Ruiz, the chef, told the Tampa Bay Times that, “I’m just happy the truth is out there now.”

All of this could have been avoided if Brown had just paid his bills.

RUN TO THE BANK

Banged-up backs aren’t worth the bucks

Christian McCaffrey is one of several highly-paid running backs stuck on the sidelines this season.Doug Murray/Associated Press

It’s a misnomer that running backs aren’t important in today’s NFL. Running backs are important in blitz pickup, are great mismatches against linebackers in the passing game, and are necessary to help teams close out wins in the fourth quarter.

But the 2021 season again offers proof that teams are not wise to invest heavily in a single running back.

There are eight running backs averaging more than $10 million per season, and only one is having a fully healthy and productive season. The list:

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers ($16.1 million per year): Played in only seven games due to two stints on injured reserve, scored two touchdowns all season, and now is out for the year.

Alvin Kamara, Saints ($15 million): Has missed the last four games with a knee injury.

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys ($15 million): Has been slowed by a knee injury since Week 4, and entered Thursday’s game ranked 10th among running backs in total yards from scrimmage.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings ($12.6 million): Has missed two games this year with an ankle injury, and now is out for Sunday at least with a shoulder injury.

Derrick Henry, Titans ($12.5 million): Was having an MVP season until he broke his foot in the Titans’ eighth game, and now is likely out for the season.

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Nick Chubb, Browns ($12.2 million): Missed two games with a calf injury and COVID-19.

Aaron Jones, Packers ($12 million): Missed Week 11 with a knee injury that he is still battling through.

Joe Mixon, Bengals ($12 million): Fourth in the NFL with 1,116 scrimmage yards and third with 13 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Colts MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor leads the NFL with 1,541 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns, and ranks 38th among running backs in average salary ($1.95 million). The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler is second in the NFL with 14 touchdowns and ranks 12th in average salary ($6.125 million).

And the Patriots have an effective run game with no one ranking in the top 30 among running backs: James White $2.46 million (31st), Brandon Bolden $1.85 million (40th), Rhamondre Stevenson $1.06 million (70th), Damien Harris $907,000 (100th), and J.J. Taylor $761,000 (120th).

It’s not that running backs aren’t important. It’s that the injury risk is so high, and the availability of good running backs is so plentiful, that teams should rarely if ever sink big money into one running back, or draft one in the top 20 or so picks of the first round.

A GOOD PICK

Jackson has made strong case for himself

Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson could be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.Stew Milne/Associated Press

The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award overwhelmingly favors pass rushers, with eight of the last 10 winners going to players who went after the quarterback. In 2019, Stephon Gilmore became the first defensive back to win the award since Troy Polamalu did it in 2010. And in the award’s 50 years, a cornerback has only won it six times (Gilmore, Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Lester Hayes, and Mel Blount).

But Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson is making a strong case this year. Jackson ranks second in the NFL with seven interceptions, two behind the Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs. Jackson also has a touchdown return, a forced fumble, and he leads the NFL with 16 passes defended. Diggs has two touchdowns but no forced fumbles, and 13 passes defended.

There are plenty of quality contenders. The Browns’ Myles Garrett leads the NFL with 14 sacks. The Steelers’ T.J. Watt is second with 12½ sacks and tied for fifth with three forced fumbles. Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has 93 tackles, two interceptions, and five forced fumbles. The Patriots’ Matthew Judon, third in the NFL with 11½ sacks, also warrants mention.

But Jackson deserves to be at or near the top of the list, especially considering he has become the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback since Gilmore’s departure. And Jackson’s numbers compare favorably with Gilmore’s from 2019, when he had six interceptions, two touchdowns, and 20 passes defended.

PAINFUL RESULTS

Trades weren’t worth loss of picks

A handful of pre-draft trades are turning out poorly for the teams that sacrificed first-round draft picks.

In 2020, the Seahawks traded two first-round picks plus more to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams, and since have given Adams a four-year, $70 million contract extension. Except the Seahawks are 3-8 and rank 15th out of 16 teams in the NFC, Adams is a run-stopping safety who is a liability in pass coverage, and the first-round pick that the Seahawks traded to the Jets currently is No. 4 overall.

The Colts’ trade for Carson Wentz is on pace to turn out poorly, though the Colts are still playing well and have time to get into the playoff bracket. They traded a third-round pick and a conditional second-round pick to the Eagles that turns into a first-rounder if Wentz plays at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps.

The Colts are 6-6 and sit in 10th place in the AFC. Yet Wentz has played in 98 percent of snaps, and is practically a lock to break the 75 percent barrier. It could be a worst-case scenario for the Colts, where they lose their first-round pick but still don’t make the playoffs.

The Bears gave up a first-round pick to the Giants for the rights to draft Justin Fields last year, and that pick currently is No. 7 overall, which the struggling Bears surely could use. The Dolphins also are losing out on a pair of trades — their trade with the 49ers that revolved around Trey Lance will net them a pick that is currently 21st, but they gave up their own first-round pick to the Eagles for the rights to draft Jaylen Waddle, and that pick currently is No. 9.

Add it all up, and the top of next year’s draft is shaping up to be dominated by the New Jersey Turnpike. Prior to this week’s games, the Jets hold picks 4-5, the Giants hold picks 6-7, and the Eagles hold picks 8-9-14.

ETC.

Officials deserving of a penalty flag

NFL referees have been under plenty of criticism this season.AJ Mast/Associated Press

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was not pleased with the officiating in his team’s Thanksgiving loss to the Raiders, as the game had 28 accepted penalties for 276 yards. He was especially salty with the five pass interference penalties that were called, including one in overtime that gave the Raiders 33 yards.

“This is really not a criticism of the rules,” Jones said last week. “It is a criticism of the discretion of how you use them and what play. Everybody knows you can call a penalty on every play many different ways, every time the ball snapped.”

Call it sour grapes, but it does seem that NFL officials are over-officiating games. Last Monday’s Seattle-Washington game was a perfect example. Replay official Walt Anderson overturned a late Washington touchdown after taking several minutes and a Zapruder-like frame-by-frame breakdown of the play, and the evidence was hardly conclusive. If a call can’t be overturned within 30 seconds, Anderson needs to stick with the call on the field.

Then the officials wiped out an onside kick recovery by the Seahawks with 22 seconds left because Nick Bellore, who had no effect on the play, incorrectly lined up inside the hash mark instead of outside the hash mark. Yes, it technically was a penalty. And it was terrible awareness by Bellore, the special teams captain, and bad coaching by Seahawks special teams coordinator Larry Izzo, but it seems a little ridiculous to eliminate a game-changing play, and essentially hand Seattle the loss, over such a minor infraction behind the play.

This was one scenario where the game would have been much better off with an official gently telling Bellore to move 1 yard to his right before the kick. We see it all the time when receivers check with officials to see that they are lined up properly. I would also be OK with officials giving defensive players one warning about lining up in the neutral zone.

If the players continue to do it after a warning, then throw the flag. But the officials are there to move the game along and call the game fairly, not to assess every tiny infraction. And as long as the officials are giving warnings to both teams, there is no advantage.

Extra points

Mac Jones will face his most hostile opposing crowd yet in Buffalo on Monday night.Stew Milne/Associated Press

The Patriots may be 5-0 on the road this year, but Mac Jones hasn’t really been tested by hostile crowds. The stands in Houston and New York were sleepy. And the Patriots practically played home games in Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Monday night in Buffalo will be the first time the Patriots will probably have to use a silent snap count this season . . . Does the AFC have a quarterback problem? Entering Sunday, the NFL’s seven highest-rated passers all came from the NFC: Kyler Murray (110.4), Aaron Rodgers (105.5), Kirk Cousins (105.3), Matthew Stafford (105.2), Tom Brady (103.1), Russell Wilson (102.5), and Dak Prescott (101.7), before the Bengals’ Joe Burrow (101.6) and Josh Allen (99.1) check in. Hurting the AFC’s performance this year are Patrick Mahomes ranking 16th (94.7) and Lamar Jackson 22nd (87.5) . . . The NFL required two COVID tests for everyone last week upon the return from Thanksgiving, and sure enough a season-high 20 players tested positive over four days, including the Patriots’ Kyle Dugger and J.J. Taylor . . . This season continues to be the worst extra-point kicking season since it was pushed back to the 15-yard line in 2015. Kickers are making just 92.9 percent of PATs, down from 93.0 percent last year and a high of 94.3 percent in 2018 . . . The banged-up Titans have officially set the NFL record for players used in a season, with 86 (previous high was 84). The Titans have used 38 players on offense, 41 on defense, and 7 just on special teams.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.