Antonio Brown, it has been said, is too much of a diva. He does not fit in the Buccaneers locker room and needs to make better decisions. The person who made these evaluations is Bruce Arians, the coach who reportedly signed him on Friday. It has been less than seven months since Arians made the most recent of these comments. Fox’s Jay Glazer, who talked to Arians on Friday night, said that Arians had given an “emphatic no” earlier this year to Bucs quarterback Tom Brady when discussing the possibility of signing Brown, but, Arians told Glazer, injuries to Bucs’ skill position players through the first six weeks of the season changed things. This, of course, is interesting because none of Arians’s previous comments were predicated on the health of the offense. O.J. Howard being out for the season, or Mike Evans nursing an ankle injury, should not make Arians think Brown is any less of a diva, or any better a fit for the locker room. It is a cynical move in a cynical league. No coach has walked into a “how it started/how it’s going” meme quite as swiftly.
No matter which team signed Brown, it was always going to be a strange pickup, even if it makes total sense from a football standpoint. The Bucs signing Brown feels like an act of desperation for a team that doesn’t need to be desperate. The same can be said of Seattle, who was also in the mix to sign the receiver. The Bucs were already an NFC contender—one who, just five days ago, dismantled a talented Packers team. The Bucs were a likable, fun team that looked like they could play with anyone. Now they are taking one of the biggest risks of 2020 to improve their outlook. Brown is remarkably good at football—he has been the most valuable receiver, according to Pro Football Focus, since he entered the league in 2010. He is the guidepost teams use when scouting receivers who can work the field and get open all the time, Chiefs GM Brett Veach once told me. At his best, Brown is one of the most valuable offensive players in the sport, and in what is perhaps the greatest era of receivers in history, he is among the very best. All of this is why it’s remarkable how many teams have given up on him at a massive cost. The Steelers, Raiders, and Patriots have some of the best football minds in the business, and all of them have decided to do whatever they can to get Brown out of their building. When the Steelers traded Brown in March 2019, they decided to take what was at the time the biggest dead cap charge in the history of the sport rather than keep him around. The Raiders and the Patriots also had to take dead cap charges after releasing him for nothing last year.
Brown is eligible to play for the Bucs Week 9 against the Saints once his current eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy is complete. The suspension stems from Brown pleading no contest to a felony burglary with battery charge in January, and separately, allegedly sending threatening text messages to a woman who said Brown made unwanted sexual advances towards her.
That suspension isn’t the only thing that has kept Brown out of the league—though that’s more than enough. What got him out of Oakland was a series of bizarre incidents and feuds, including a war with the league’s helmet manufacturers. He also reportedly threatened to punch Raiders GM Mike Mayock and called him “a cracker.” The most generous interpretation of his time as a Raider is that he was intentionally trying to get cut in order to escape a situation he didn’t want to be in, which in itself is probably why a team shouldn’t want him. In Pittsburgh, where he spent the first 10 seasons of his career, he went AWOL three times in 2018, the most notable of which was at the end of the season, when he reportedly chucked a football at Ben Roethlisberger and refused to practice, then bailed on the team on a Sunday after being ruled inactive. He was signed by New England after his brief stint in Oakland, but was cut by the Patriots, in part, according to The Athletic, because owner Robert Kraft was “enraged” after it was reported that Brown sent the threatening text messages. Kraft spoke to Bill Belichick, the report said, and the owner and coach decided to cut Brown after he played one game. The Saints worked him out late last season and he brought a camera crew to the workout and made a music video out of it. According to the Washington Post’s Mark Maske, Brown could still face further punishment from the league as a result of its ongoing investigation into the sexual assault allegations brought by a former trainer.
There’s a story I think about a lot when it comes to player evaluation, told in a Vanity Fair piece about a private equity legend. The short version is that two bidders wanted to buy Revlon, the cosmetics giant. One saw the books; one didn’t. The one that didn’t bid more than the one that did. Why? The answer: “Because you’ve seen the books, and you’re the smartest man in the world.” Not everyone in football can see the books, so you have to glean a lot from the people who have. I look at the Brown situation, and I see three smart organizations that have seen the inner workings of what it meant to have Brown on their team and wanted him out. Speaking of personal relationships: Brown, who knows Arians from his Pittsburgh tenure, is on record responding to Arians’s diva comment, taking a shot at Arians’s Kangol hats and sunglasses, among other things.
This move may work out from a football perspective—if Brown can stay on the field, it almost certainly will work out—but that doesn’t mean the Bucs shouldn’t take heat for it or be held responsible. When healthy, Brady will have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Brown, and whatever Rob Gronkowski has left. Arians is a good offensive coach, and the Bucs are 4-2 and already playing well. Signing Brown is a risk, even if structurally, the contract is not. The deal, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, is a two-month rental. But there is no such thing as taking a flier on Antonio Brown. Arians and Brady are sticking their neck out to sign him. It might win them the Super Bowl, or it might end in abject disaster as Brown’s last three departures have. Even if he’s quickly cut, in the worst-case scenario, there’s a chance he could hurt a team in the midst of contending for the NFC South.
These situations are a good way to learn, again, that the NFL does not demand accountability like they say they do. Brown, who has acted (I think we can all agree) like a jackass, can get another NFL job as soon as it is allowed. NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling helpfully dispelled any narratives that Brown has somehow shown evidence he’s changed, writing this week that Brown’s behavior during his nearly 18-month NFL absence has been noteworthy, in particular, for its extreme lack of accountability, empathy and contrition.” Talent rules, and two smart veterans—Arians and Brady—are ready to take a massive risk for it. You pretty much cannot defend Antonio Brown on the Bucs. And that has two meanings.