The Antonio Brown era in Tampa Bay is over.
Shocking. If not so predictable.
There was Brown Sunday afternoon in the second half of a tight Bucs game against the Jets, exposing himself to the football world yet again, his jersey-ditching, shirt-stripping, bizarre arm-waving walk across an active end zone and right out of MetLife Stadium putting him on the NFL unemployment line once more.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians declared in his postgame comments that Brown “is no longer a Buc, all right?” doing his best to sound declarative and forceful in making an announcement that might have felt impressively fast if it weren’t so damn slow in coming.
Is anyone actually surprised it ended this way? Ask the Steelers if they’re surprised. Ask the Raiders. Ask the Patriots, whose brief but inglorious 2019 partnership with the troubled wide receiver provided all the prophecy needed of future folly.
Brown’s headline-making antics happened as the Patriots were happily sucking any drama out of Gillette Stadium, their 50-10 romp over the overmatched Jaguars further distancing them from those desperate days they took a risk on Brown. Yet even as they continue the rebuilding process that began after that disappointing 2019 season, let’s not congratulate them for somehow dodging a bullet by releasing him when they did. That brief union left a stain that darkens with every new Brown outburst.
So desperate was the Patriots’ need for playmakers across that final Tom Brady season that the front office listened to the pleas of a quarterback happy to vouch for the talented but toxic receiver, listened to the promise of a coach happy to work around Brown’s many and myriad off-the-field antics, ignored the risk of a wavering public opinion that owner Robert Kraft has often professed to value as much as he does winning. They signed him anyway, suiting him up against Miami and even throwing him a touchdown before the walls came crumbling down.
Not that they ever truly explained their decisions regarding Brown, with Bill Belichick choosing instead to stare down CBS reporter Dana Jacobson for daring to ask what the final straw for his release was, or the coach more than once just walking away from his press conference lectern when too many Brown questions were asked.
But they weren’t signing him out of charity or out of concern for his well-being. They signed him to help them win football games, and when the distraction outweighed the reward, he was gone. That’s what happened again Sunday in Tampa. If indeed there are issues of mental health leading Brown down these self-destructive paths, or even ones of injury due to a history of helmet-rattling hits, here’s hoping he gets professional and reliable help. Here’s hoping those attempts no longer include repeated opportunities and second chances in the NFL. Because those don’t seem to be helping.
Wasn’t that Arians who’d famously declared in March 2020, that signing Brown to the Bucs was “not gonna happen. There’s no room. And probably not enough money. But it’s not gonna happen — it’s not a fit here. I just know him, and — it’s not a fit in our locker room. He’s too much of a diva.”
Wasn’t that Arians who then signed Brown in October anyway, and insisted to reporter Peter King that if “he screws up once, he’s gone.” Wasn’t that Arians who said only weeks ago after welcoming Brown back after his fake-vaccination card fiasco, “it’s in the best interest of our football team.” So much for the one “screw-up.”
Wasn’t that Brown throwing blame anywhere but on himself for the vaccination card debacle, chiding reporters in Tampa by saying, “You guys are all drama. It’s all about football. We’re going to talk about Carolina or I don’t want to talk to you.”
And wasn’t this Brady on Sunday, when yet another of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks was overshadowed by his bestie-turned-roommate Brown quitting, getting fired and reportedly finding his own way home, “We want to see him be at his best, unfortunately it won’t be with our team … I think everyone should be compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things that are happening.”
Antonio Brown literally quit on Tom Brady in the middle of a game— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 2, 2022
I absolutely didn’t expect this reaction of immediate sympathy
who knows what AB is going thru but credit to Brady, this level of empathy & humanity in the moment is impressive pic.twitter.com/jl3sL8sCqL
Brady was never that forthcoming about his time with Brown in New England, but hindsight paints that brief overlap as so symbolic of what went wrong in the quarterback’s final season with the Pats. The black cloud of imminent divorce hung over the second half of that season, with neither Brady nor the coach with whom he’d won six Super Bowls able to pretend it away. Brown’s forced departure after accusations of sexual assault and evidence of threatening texts left Kraft having to insist he be cut, but left both Brady and Belichick pouting all the way through a season-ending wild-card playoff loss to the Titans.
Brady would get the influence he craved in Tampa, convincing his buddy Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement, vouching for the addition of Brown as another top-tier talent. And it paid off in the biggest football way possible, when the then 43-year-old quarterback won the seventh Super Bowl of his career, his first without New England, his first without Belichick, and his first with Brown.
Now the defense of that title will go on without him. Brown showed himself to the football world again on Sunday. This time, the Bucs chose to see it.