The NFL is a deeply cynical league. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim once said at the combine that if Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, teams would find a way to keep him on their draft boards. Talent gets a lot of chances. If you are one of the best players in the sport, as Antonio Brown is, it takes a lot for a team to consider you more problem than talent. Brown’s talent no longer matters, at least for one team, in a league where it means almost everything.
The Patriots released Brown on Friday after 11 days, one strange game, and a handful of scandals. It is not an exaggeration to call the past year of Brown’s career one of the strangest sagas in league history. His departures from Pittsburgh and Oakland were marked by vaguely comedic episodes—the cryotherapy mishap, a helmet controversy, an appearance on The Masked Singer, a taped conversation with Jon Gruden. Brown had a blond mustache. Things were light. What’s changed between now and 11 days ago, when Brown signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Patriots, is that Brown’s saga is no longer funny—if it ever was. His departure from the Patriots comes amid a league investigation into a federal civil complaint in which Brown’s former trainer Britney Taylor says he sexually assaulted her and raped her. Even after The New York Times reported Taylor’s complaint, Brown played against Miami on Sunday in his lone game as a Patriot. On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko reported a 2017 incident, in which Brown hired an artist to paint a mural of him at his Pittsburgh property. The artist says that while she was working, Brown approached her naked with a washcloth covering his penis. On Thursday, Klemko reported that Brown sent intimidating text messages to the woman after the initial report was published. Brown’s behavior was once considered obnoxious, but now it is clearly toxic. Brown is a problem too big for the Patriots and, right now, too big for any NFL team.
The Patriots made the only move they could make. They had to cut Brown. Earlier this week the NFL Network reported that the Patriots wouldn’t have signed Brown had they known about Taylor’s complaint. After additional reports this week, the Patriots concluded their role in Brown’s saga the only way that made sense for them. Brown’s short-term future in the sport, and perhaps long term as well, is in doubt. The NFL reportedly met with Taylor for 10 hours on Monday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter said that Brown’s departure means the league can conduct its investigation with no timetable, making it unlikely any team “would attempt to get in the way of that” by signing him until it concludes. Additionally, Fox’s Jay Glazer said that only a few teams expressed interest in Brown when he was initially a free agent two weeks ago and that the list now will be zero “for the foreseeable future.”
It is impossible to gauge when, if ever, a team will next take another chance on Brown because the investigation is far from over. When it’s concluded, teams—here comes that cynicism again—will weigh the investigation’s findings against his talent and decide accordingly. Ray Rice and Greg Hardy were both placed on the commissioner’s exempt list because of domestic violence incidents in 2014. Rice never played in the NFL again, while Hardy eventually signed an $11.3 million deal with the Cowboys, mostly because Hardy was viewed as a much better player at that time and NFL teams that want talent can be quite shameless.
As for the Patriots—the third team to give up on Brown this calendar year, each one for vastly different reasons—they will be fine from a football perspective. They started the day as the Super Bowl favorites and ended it the same way. They still have the reigning Super Bowl MVP in Julian Edelman among their receiving corps and a quarterback in Tom Brady who has a knack for turning people into Super Bowl MVPs.
There were signs something was coming early Friday when Bill Belichick deflected questions about Brown more than usual and then walked out of a press conference. If Bill Belichick is unable to deflect tough questions—something he’s done quite literally thousands of times in his career—then something is off. This, as Tim Kawakami points out, was informative. This was different. Brown’s release does not say a lot about the Patriots and is not some referendum on the “Patriot Way.” These reports were too serious for Brown to continue playing for New England, or any team, regardless of the coach or the locker room.
Spotrac reports that the Patriots might incur dead cap figures of $5.5 million in 2019 and $4.5 million in 2020 and that they will need to try to void Brown’s deal to get rid of all dead cap. Brown was already responsible for the biggest dead cap hit in history with the $21 million the Steelers are paying against the cap for him to not play for them in 2019. The Raiders traded a third- and fifth-round pick for Brown, but voided his guarantees, and now the Patriots might have dead cap too. It’s unlikely any team will try to put Brown on their roster because everyone that has had him this year has regretted it. For now, Brown is out of the league. The NFL gives talent multiple chances even in the face of serious problems. Brown’s were too much for more than one game with the Patriots.