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Antonio Brown Has Been Released, Closing the Most Bizarre Chapter in NFL Memory

The Raiders cut the superstar wide receiver on Saturday just months after trading for him. It caps the drama-filled relationship that defined the preseason—and poses questions about what comes next.

Antonio Brown Getty Images

Antonio Brown’s Raiders tenure is already over. He made one million headlines and played in exactly zero games.

Perhaps you last tuned into the Brown saga when the four-time All-Pro wide receiver missed practices earlier this fall because he froze his feet in a cryotherapy treatment gone wrong. Or perhaps it was when Brown later threatened to retire because he wasn’t allowed to play in his preferred helmet. If so, you’ve missed a lot. On Thursday, reports surfaced that Brown had threatened to fight Oakland general manager Mike Mayock over a pair of fines. On Friday, Brown apologized to the team and things appeared to smooth over, with head coach Jon Gruden saying that he expected Brown to play in the team’s season opener against Denver on Monday Night Football. Brown even posted a strange, optimistic, and stunningly well-produced video on YouTube.

But on Friday the Raiders fined Brown for conduct detrimental to the team. That fine allowed the team to void the nearly $30 million of guaranteed money on Brown’s contract. Brown declared that he wouldn’t play without guarantees and demanded his release. The team, no longer contractually beholden to Brown, obliged.

From the Raiders standpoint, this is an embarrassment, even if the franchise walks away financially unscathed. Since hiring Gruden from ESPN in 2018 and Mayock from the NFL Network last December, the Raiders have felt more like a television show than a professional football team. (Oddly, the actual TV show about the Raiders was not particularly interesting.) They gave up third- and fifth-round draft picks in their trade for Brown. Somehow, this now marks the second time in two seasons that Oakland sent the Steelers draft picks to acquire a receiver who would be cut before Week 1. Last year it was Martavis Bryant, who eventually resigned with the team and played in eight games. I get the sense that isn’t going to happen this time around.

Even with Brown in tow, the Raiders were not expected to be particularly competitive in 2019. Outside of him, Oakland’s roster featured only three players who had reached a Pro Bowl in their careers: quarterback Derek Carr, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and center Rodney Hudson. After dealing pass rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper to Chicago and Dallas, respectively, in 2018, the team embraced a full-scale rebuild. But the acquisition of Brown felt like a sign that the organization was climbing toward legitimacy ahead of its 2020 move to Las Vegas.

Now, the Raiders’ best wide receiver is Tyrell Williams, and their no. 2 wideout is fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow. (You might want to add Renfrow in your fantasy leagues.) Any excitement about where the franchise was heading under Gruden has been stopped in its tracks.

From Brown’s standpoint, the question becomes what’s next, and whether another team will be able to look past this saga and sign the ultra-talented wideout. Yes, he’s a headache who has proved incapable of working with two franchises within the span of a few months, but he’s also a perpetual top-tier player who’s recorded six straight 1,000-yard seasons. Is it really possible that Brown could go unsigned? Surely, some team (read: the New England Patriots*) will pop a few Advil and deal with that headache.

*Editor’s note: Since this piece was published, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that Brown has indeed agreed to terms with the Patriots.

Even if and when that happens, though, Brown will likely never get a contract approaching the one he just had. Why would any team put massive guarantees into a deal for a player who’s behaved the way Brown has with the Raiders? Brown could seek his Raiders guarantees through arbitration, but that feels like a long shot.

And that’s what makes this all such a bummer. Brown is one of the greatest receivers in football history and a likely future Hall of Famer. (If you don’t believe me, read my colleague Robert Mays’s piece asking Hall of Famers about Brown last season.) This preseason, he just cost himself $30 million due to his inability to control himself. Hopefully he can turn things around soon, because right now we’re watching a transcendent talent self-destruct.