There was a popular joke floating around Saturday morning that Antonio Brown, fresh off his release and one of the most bizarre tenures in NFL history, would sign a low-risk deal with the New England Patriots. The lesson we learned is that Bill Belichick is never joking.
Brown agreed to terms with the Patriots on Saturday afternoon, marking a predictable end to the most unpredictable saga in recent league memory. You cannot tell the story of Antonio Brown’s 2019 without mentioning hot air balloons, a cryotherapy treatment gone wrong, an obscure helmet rule, the incoherent nickname Mr. Big Chest, The Masked Singer, a YouTube video including a recording of his head coach, and a blonde mustache. Now you will not be able to do so without mentioning something else: Brown playing alongside the greatest coach and quarterback tandem in football history, in huge games, vying for a Super Bowl.
Brown’s deal is worth $15 million, and despite looking like the end of one long, strange journey, it very much signals the beginning of another. No matter how it plays out, there is no way that the next chapter will be normal: The first scenario is that Brown destroys defenses, the Pats’ offense looks unstoppable, and New England dances through the AFC once again. This would mean that over the past nine months, Brown has been working the ultimate bit: an Andy Kaufman–like angle designed to get him out of Pittsburgh, out of Oakland, and into New England—a bit that included losing $30 million to help sell it. The second scenario is that Brown continues to act as he did on the Raiders, doesn’t produce, and is eventually, quietly, dropped from the roster. The third scenario is a combination of one and two: He acts like he did in Oakland while simultaneously dominating defenses on the field. It’s hard to say which outcome is most likely.
The signing probably solves both parties’ problems. The Patriots needed offensive firepower after Rob Gronkowski retired this offseason. Now, New England’s offense at full strength will feature Brown lining up on the same field as Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. I often joke, in a Jeff Goldblum sort of style, that life finds a way when it comes to the Patriots making the Super Bowl. A month ago, it looked like they didn’t have enough offensive weapons and that an aging Brady might finally struggle to find open guys. That they might have to rely more heavily on the power-running game. Well, they reversed that story line in a matter of weeks. Gordon was reinstated from his suspension and Brown is a Patriot. Life finds a way.
Brown is one of hardest-working players in the sport. I have seen him stay on the field an hour after practice to work on the Jugs machine, sometimes draped by a reserve defensive back to simulate contested catches. You know who else does stuff like that? Tom Brady, whom Brandon LaFell once told me would throw extremely high passes during warmups before afternoon games to get his receivers used to catching in the sun. Brady and Brown have a chance to be an iconic on-field duo if Brown can be the player he’s been over the last half-decade and not the guy he’s been the last half of this year.
I talk a lot about the Patriots innovating, and they do. They change scheme from one year to the next, and even strategy from one game to the next. But there’s something they never change: They identify undervalued assets, collect them, and then win with them. This move has obvious parallels to the organization’s 2007 trade for Randy Moss, another Oakland castoff. New England finds a lot of these types of players—high on promise, but low in effectiveness in a given infrastructure—and takes fliers on them. Some work out; take Moss, Corey Dillon, or Kyle Van Noy. Some don’t; Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth immediately spring to mind. But the Pats do two things well: They don’t commit much to these players (Brown’s deal is for only one year), and they set them up to succeed by asking them to focus on what they do best and stripping everything else off their plate. The interesting thing about Brown is that if you ask him to do only what he’s good at, that would mean asking him to do everything.
This Pats move is, however, slightly different from the others. Part of that is that Brown played at an elite level last season. This isn’t the case for most low-risk Patriots acquisitions. Moss had mostly mailed in two seasons on the Raiders and was coming off a 553-yard campaign when he departed for New England. Brown, by contrast, has accumulated at least 1,200 yards in each of the last six years—even though he hasn’t played 16 regular-season games in any of the last three. Brown is also, as a player, the model against which most general managers evaluate receivers. Last summer, I talked to Kansas City GM Brett Veach about his philosophy in building the Chiefs around Patrick Mahomes. Veach said that he was scouting players who played like Brown because they’d provide the best targets for a young quarterback. On the field, Brown is the blueprint. Off the field is a different story.
The Patriot Way doesn’t really exist. I detailed that in a story earlier this week. What exists is a really smart team that puts everyone in positions to succeed, and cuts loose those who fail to take advantage. Brown is now in a remarkable position: He goes from Derek Carr to Tom Brady. If he screws it up on the Patriots, who are more comfortable moving on from mistakes than any other franchise in professional sports, they won’t hesitate to move on. If he doesn’t screw it up, the Patriots will probably win the Super Bowl.
This is an example of the “extreme job security” factor discussed in that aforementioned story, something Belichick has that other coaches and GMs usually don’t. Belichick gets the luxury of knowing that he can play the long game and eat any mistakes. There are probably 25 NFL coaches who looked at Brown and thought, he could cost me my job. Only a select few have a long enough lease to take a chance on him. Hilariously, one of those guys is the Raiders employee who has nine years left on his deal: Jon Gruden.
Antonio Brown is a Patriot. Bill Belichick is his coach, and Tom Brady is his quarterback. One of the most remarkable sagas in league history is over, and one of the most intriguing teams in league history is born. That, I suppose, is the ultimate bit.