MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Antonio Brown, dripping in Gucci, stepped off a Patriots bus at around 10:20 a.m. Sunday and walked into Hard Rock Stadium in front of a dozen clicking cameras.
By 11 a.m., he was on the field to warm up. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, monitored from the sideline.
Brown stretched, shoe-less, in the end zone. The bottoms of his feet, which had been blistered with frostbite in a cryotherapy accident this summer, were smooth. He stretched out his hips and did a series of balancing exercises, catching a small object from a trainer while standing on one foot on top of a squishy pad.
At one point, former Patriot Chad Johnson, who was at the game, came over to say hello. The two receivers familiar with courting headlines shared a few words.
When Brown finished his warmup, he picked his half-eaten banana up off the turf and finished it, walked off the field into the tunnel and raised an arm up to point at the mostly empty stands. Rosenhaus stuck around and conversed briefly with Robert and Jonathan Kraft. Robert Kraft did most of the talking.
Brown did not start. Instead, he came in on the second play of the game. From the slot, he got a free release, ran uncovered across the middle of the field and caught an 18-yard pass from Tom Brady.
“I didn’t think about it, I was just trying to throw to the open guy and got him on the over route,” Brady said.
The Patriots marched down the field for a touchdown. Brown finished the drive with three passes caught for 36 yards, plus a drawn holding penalty. He was Brady’s only target. His fourth and final catch of the day was a 20-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, after which Brown leapt into the first row of stands behind the end zone, then performed a series of elaborate handshakes with teammates.
“I don’t think any of us had any doubts about AB’s skillset,” said Josh Gordon. “It was just good to see it in an actual game. He continues to be what we expect him to be which is a great wide receiver. For us it’s a tremendous asset.”
It was a strong on-field statement for a player whose issues lie off of it. No doubt, some Patriots fans wondering whether Brown deserves their support were tempted by his talents in those moments. This game came eight days after the Patriots acquired the mercurial four-time All-Pro and five days after Brown was accused of rape in a civil suit filed by a former trainer of his.
“I don’t make any of those decisions, I just show up and play,” Brady said.
“I’ve already commented on that, I’m not going to say any more,” Belichick said.
Later on, some of the problems that tend to bubble up when a new player is fed the ball did show. Brown and Brady combined for a string of three consecutive incompletions in the second half, the second and third of which could have been touchdowns. Brown wasn’t where Brady needed him on one of the throws but, when an underthrow on another allowed Dolphins cornerback Eric Rowe to knock away a would-be touchdown ball, Brady signaled to Brown that it was his fault. He tapped his helmet and then his chest as if to say, “My bad,” then walked off the field side by side with Brown.
“We have a long way to go. We really do,” Brady said.
After the game, Brown escaped. By the time the locker room opened to media, the stall Brown had occupied between Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers was empty. Brown’s nameplate had been ripped off — you could still see residue from the adhesive — and he was gone.
That was Antonio Brown’s first Patriots game. Some flash. Some good football. No words. No explanations.