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‘Hard Knocks’ Episode 2 Recap: “Has Anyone Seen My Friend Antonio Brown?”

Jon Gruden may as well have been speaking for all of us. So many questions about Brown’s curious training camp were left unanswered. The helmet drama remains unsolved, and his frostbitten feet? They’ve been … circumcised.  

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Raiders have one more season to play in Oakland before they disembark for Las Vegas. This year, HBO’s Hard Knocks is following the Raiders through their preseason training camp, and we’ll be breaking down each episode. “There’s no whining in football,” the voiceover intones, “but every August football comes to wine country.” And how!

You might recall that last week, Hard Knocks’ season premiere cruelly failed to address the most important question of Raiders training camp and possibly of the 2019 NFL season: Does newly acquired receiver Antonio Brown indeed have “extreme frostbite” on his feet due to a cryotherapy session gone horribly wrong, and if so, what?

Since then, so many more pressing questions have been raised, with not a lot in the way of answers. We learned, via Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver, that Brown had “alarmed Raiders coaches and teammates by railing against the NFL’s enhanced enforcement of helmet regulations” and then turned up at practice with his old, and now verboten, helmet instead, “which he had since had repainted with colors approximating—but not completely mimicking—the Raiders’ silver-and-black design.” From there, he reportedly announced that he would not play football—possibly ever—unless he could wear his old helmet; this, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, was the primary reason for his absence from practice, not his possibly frostbitten toesies. A two-hour hearing with league officials reportedly resulted in Brown being told that no, he really could not wear his old helmet.

(For what it’s worth, Brown kind of answered the frostbite question himself, posting a positively horrifying picture on Instagram of some sheaths of skin supposedly attached to his feet. My editor, after warning me not to send him this picture, had to click that link when I embedded it, so it’s the very least you can do out of respect for him to join along and see the horror for yourself. Apologies, all.)

Last we heard prior to this week’s Hard Knocks, Brown—who claims that the new helmet interferes with his field of vision—had received dispensation from the league to wear a version of his preferred helmet, provided it was made within the last 10 years. He is apparently carrying out his search the old-fashioned way: via tweet.

(Brown house style apparently involves placing all of his tweets in quotes. Is this the work of an overly cautious social media manager? Is Brown quoting himself? Did someone just, like, overhear this somewhere?)

In short, we enter Tuesday night’s episode with the same question as last week: what?

At this point, the Antonio Brown drama isn’t merely a preseason curio. Hard Knocks purports to take us behind the scenes to show us the #real NFL. The mystery of Brown’s feet and then of his helmet and possible refusal to play football at all have indisputably been the biggest news in the NFL over the last two weeks, even as preseason matchups and future MVP Daniel Jones’s career (who says no? Oh, right) got under way. So if Hard Knocks can’t use this access to explain what’s happening, what’s the point? The show has always been a PR exercise to some degree—yes, of course Crummy Team of the Year is just about to finally make good, and you’ll be riding shotgun!—but if it can’t even keep up the simplest of journalistic premises, then what’s the point?

So, really. What’s the deal with Antonio Brown?

First, let’s address the feet. Or, rather, let’s let Brown address the feet, which he would like for America to know have been … circumcised.

We get an explanation of the cryotherapy disaster, kind of—it just happened—and a lot on the grisly aftermath, which involves, I regret to say, the words “scissors” and “draining.”

His feet are now ostensibly on the mend, however, which leaves us with the helmet drama. Hard Knocks didn’t really offer much in the way of new material here: We learned that head coach Jon Gruden is apparently frustrated with Brown’s absence (“Has anybody seen my friend Antonio Brown?” he asks at one point), but that’s about it. The teaser for next week’s episode suggests that there is more helmet chatter to come, so maybe there are answers in the offing.

But this much is certain: Brown’s offer to trade an autographed helmet for his apparently mega-rare helmet of choice does not seem like a very good deal, provided you are a supply-and-demand kind of person. Will he find what he’s after? What might he ultimately have to pay? Is his gnarly old helmet really that much better? Let’s hope we start getting answers—though by the time we do, we’ll likely be onto the next bizarre controversy.

This Week in Jon Gruden

I’ll say this for our guy: He loves him some metaphors. On playing without Antonio Brown: “It’s like playing the Masters with one golf ball.” On Nathan Peterman playing like Nathan Peterman: “So casual! Like a house mouse!” Gruden pronounces his name Peter-Man, which may or may not be related to his desire to call every single person he encounters “man,” as in “protect the merchandise, man,” with regard to staying away from Derek Carr.

Speaking of Carr: If the starting quarterback (for now?!?!)—who dwelled extensively on how nervous he was when he asked his wife’s parents for permission to propose (the Derek Carr: Good Hang or Bad Hang? war rages on)—showed an example of marital devotion, Gruden provided the counterpoint. “Shit, I’m more excited to see you play than I am to see my wife, and I ain’t seen her in two weeks,” he tells undrafted rookie—and Bay Area native—Keelan Doss. Sure!

Football isn’t dangerous at all, guys.

Rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby emerged this episode as a possible fan favorite. He sang “Buy U a Drank” at team karaoke! (And not so badly that his teammates booed, as they did when fellow rookie Hunter Renfrow warbled his way through “Lean on Me.”) He went to a tattoo parlor, where he began to fill out a sleeve with a his draft number, 106, in the style of the 100 emoji, and an image of Mad Max(x).

But then, in the Raiders’ first preseason matchup versus the Rams, he came off the field with what a trainer immediately informed him was a broken hand. Despite repeatedly admitting it felt “like a noodle,” he readily accepted a trainer’s offer to wrap up his hand and send him back out on the field. I am not a doctor, so please forgive me, but this seems like … maybe not the optimal medical treatment? We learned after the game that Crosby will need to have a plate inserted in his hand. “You need some milk,” he’s advised on the sideline, which, OK, sure—but also maybe he shouldn’t play football with an extremely broken hand.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.