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Conspiracy Corner: Was Antonio Brown’s Patriots Signing Part of an NFL Long Con for the Ages?

The All-Pro wide receiver’s move to New England sent shock waves across the league. It’s also prompting us to view his Raiders antics in an entirely different light.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Antonio Brown has been portrayed as the NFL’s court jester: foolish, outlandish, far too ridiculous to be taken seriously. But after Brown’s supposedly foolhardy antics once again put the All-Pro receiver in a significantly improved situation, I keep wondering: Is it possible that he’s actually the league’s shadow king?

Brown dominated the preseason news cycle with his seemingly erratic behavior as a member of the Oakland Raiders. First, there was the time he froze his feet in a cryotherapy chamber; then, the time he threatened to retire over a technicality that prevented him from wearing his preferred helmet; then the time he reportedly attempted to fight Oakland general manager Mike Mayock over fines issued by the team, an altercation that led to the Raiders stripping Brown of nearly $30 million in guaranteed money and eventually cutting him. (Apparently even guarantees aren’t guaranteed in the NFL.) For a fleeting moment Saturday, this seemed like a tragedy: It felt like we were watching a supremely talented player self-destruct, costing himself tens of millions of dollars in the process.

Within hours of Brown’s release, however, he had already secured a new gig—and a perfect one at that. Brown agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth up to $15 million with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who now boast the best receiving corps in the league. Brown gets $9 million as a signing bonus—an incredible amount of money to give to a player who had just botched things with two franchises in six months. If Brown plays the entire season, he will make roughly the same amount as he was due to make with the Raiders and have the option to hit the free-agent market next spring. And if the Pats pick up a contract option for the 2020 season, Brown could actually make more than he was set to earn with the Raiders. Brown’s tantrums took him from a likely cellar dweller to a championship contender without sacrificing much financially. It’s a colossal victory.

After Brown was cut, it was widely joked that he would join the Patriots, due to their history of having outrageously good things happen to them and their reputation for signing talented players with controversial backgrounds to low-risk deals. I even joked about this in a story about Brown’s release! Still, it was stunning to see it happen, and happen so quickly.

Too quickly, many believe. You’d think that Brown would have remained a free agent long enough to weigh offers from various teams, perhaps even visiting some that were interested in signing him. Apparently not! Five hours and two minutes passed between Adam Schefter’s tweet announcing Brown’s release and the tweet announcing the details of his new Patriots contract. He literally could not have flown from Oakland to Boston in that time. It all wrapped up too neatly, too easily, too expeditiously.

The working theory is that Brown’s behavior was a long con. In this theory, Brown wanted to play in New England all along, and the Patriots wanted him as well, but the Steelers (and later the Raiders) refused to cooperate. According to Schefter, the Pats actually tried to trade for Brown in March, but the Steelers could not be convinced to send one of the sport’s best players to its undisputed best team. So Brown came up with a workaround: He’d go elsewhere first (but not anywhere, as he squashed an agreed-upon trade that would’ve sent him to the Bills) and intentionally sabotage his time with that team by acting as unruly as possible with the end goal of going to New England. Jeff Howe of The Athletic reported that a source pitched this theory to him before Brown’s release, “not with cynicism or even anger as much as acceptance.”

Of course, it would go against NFL rules for one franchise to encourage a player to get cut from another franchise so that it could sign him on the open market after previously failing to negotiate a trade. But the Patriots have never shied away from engaging in mildly illegal activities, have they?

Let’s dig into the various elements of this delicious conspiracy theory.

The Suspicious Pittsburgh-to–New England Pipeline

Incredibly, there is precedent for a Steelers player allegedly acting out because of his desire to play for the Patriots. In fact, this could be the third time it’s happened recently!

In 2014, running back LeGarrette Blount clubhouse cancer-ed his way out of Pittsburgh and immediately signed a contract with New England, with whom he’d go on to win a Super Bowl while giggling at accusations that he orchestrated his Steelers exit. Blount had played for the Patriots in 2013, rushing for 772 yards and a then-career-high seven touchdowns. In the offseason, he signed with the Steelers, and did everything wrong from the get-go. In August, he was busted for driving with marijuana. In November, he was given the opportunity to score a touchdown from the 1-yard line and somehow lost 8 yards on the play. The next week, he didn’t touch the ball during a Monday Night Football victory over the Titans, and notably left the field early while the game was still happening.

On November 18, Pittsburgh cut him. On November 20, he signed with the Patriots. On November 23, he ran for 78 yards with two touchdowns in New England’s 34-9 rout of the Lions. On January 18, he dominated in the AFC championship game against the Colts, and on February 1 he led the Patriots in carries in their Super Bowl win over the Seahawks.

Ahead of that Super Bowl, Blount was bluntly asked whether he tried to get cut by the Steelers with the understanding that he could always sign with New England if things went south. He didn’t exactly deny the allegation. Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reported that Blount smiled, laughed, and said, “I didn’t know nothing,” when asked whether he knew that he would sign with the Pats if the Steelers cut him loose. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Blount said “it doesn’t matter” when asked whether he had tried to get cut by the Steelers, and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette laid out why it would be virtually impossible for the league to catch one of its teams tampering this way. “No one would know except the agent and the other team’s rep,” Bouchette wrote.

It was never proved that anything fishy happened between Blount and the Patriots. The NFL didn’t even investigate the potential tampering charges. But three years later, a similar situation unfolded. James Harrison, the onetime defensive player of the year who spent 14 of his 15 NFL seasons with Pittsburgh, fell out of the team’s plans in 2017 and grew increasingly frustrated with the franchise. He says he asked the team to cut him three times during that season, and his teammates made the case that he also tried to get cut via his actions, as Harrison skipped several practices, slept (and snored) through meetings, and didn’t join the rest of the Steelers on a trip to visit injured teammate Ryan Shazier in the hospital. On December 23, Harrison was finally cut by Pittsburgh; on December 26, Harrison signed with the Patriots, and went on to play in New England’s regular-season finale.

There weren’t any cries of collusion when Harrison signed with the Pats. However, this seems relevant because Harrison is still friends with Antonio Brown. At the end of the 2018 season, when Brown was feuding with the Pittsburgh coaching staff, the two even filmed a series of videos together, with Brown promising to give Harrison scoops on his fallout with the team.

Harrison could have advised Brown that the Pats were a prime destination for talented players if things went wrong with the Steelers (or Raiders). The blueprint was in place. And while we’re naming notable friends of Antonio Brown … we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Jimmy Butler, who demanded a trade from the team he began his career with and sabotaged his tenure with his second team by staging a now-infamous practice revolt that included a screaming match with a general manager. Sound familiar?

The Reported Social Media Consultant

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday that Brown “sought advice from social media consultants” on how to get cut by the Raiders. Mort didn’t explain precisely what that meant, inspiring plenty of questions. Did Brown hire a professional social media firm, or did he just DM a bunch of people on Instagram? Doesn’t Brown already have a social media team? When my mom asks me how to edit captions on Instagram, is that technically an example of someone “seeking advice from a social media consultant”?

Here’s what we know: On September 4, Brown protested a team fine by posting an image of a letter from Mayock to Instagram. A few days later, he requested his release on Instagram after the team stripped him of his salary guarantees. He also released a pair of YouTube videos: One, dropped Friday night, featured a snippet of a phone call from Jon Gruden that appeared to be recorded without Gruden’s consent, which is illegal in California. (For the record, this video had incredible production value.) Another, dropped right about the time Brown signed with the Patriots, featured Brown’s reaction to the news of his Raiders release.

The latter video seems to be just about the strongest evidence we have that Brown knew he had a Patriots deal on lock. Have you ever seen somebody this thrilled to lose a job? In the video, Brown tells his grandmother, “I told you it was gonna work out,” suggesting Brown’s family may have also been aware of a plan.

Yet while Brown’s push to be released appears coordinated, and he clearly took advantage of his online audiences to force Oakland’s hand, it should be noted that AB has always been active on social media. In June, he posted an eight-minute video of himself getting his hair cut, doing some workouts, and saying hi to people on the street. Brown’s stint as a celebrity making videos for fans on Cameo was perhaps the worst in the brief history of the service. And, of course, he notoriously went live on Facebook from the Steelers locker room without telling the coaches he was filming them. The guy literally has a history of surreptitiously recording coaches!

Although the premise that Brown hired a social media consultant raises eyebrows, it doesn’t provide any insight into whether the Patriots were involved. Mortensen’s report actually specified that Brown wanted to be released because several teams were interested in signing him, not just New England.

The Lessons of Helmetgate

Let us analyze a tangentially related situation: Antonio Brown’s helmet grievance. It doesn’t seem like Brown’s complaints about his helmet led to his getting cut by the Raiders, but it certainly could have taught Brown a lesson about how to benefit from creating a major ruckus.

In case you weren’t following closely, here’s a recap: Brown was one of a few dozen players who went through the 2018 season wearing a helmet that was disallowed for the 2019 campaign. Others, such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, griped about having their preferred helmets banned, but soon acquiesced and took the field in new helmets. Brown, though, steadfastly refused to play in anything other than the Schutt AiR Advantage. Brown reportedly tried to practice in this disallowed helmet, at one point painting it in hopes of sneaking it onto the field without being detected. (Apparently Brown is not much of an artist; the ploy didn’t work.) He left training camp and filed multiple helmet grievances with the league, all of which failed. He even embarked on a wild goose chase to secure a rare version of the helmet in an attempt to take advantage of a loophole. Brown found several and the NFL agreed to test them; the helmet failed, as the league concluded Brown’s preferred model was unsafe.

As it turns out, Brown did not retire over the helmet situation. In fact, he shaped it into a marketing opportunity. Brown went on to announce that he had chosen Xenith brand helmets, explaining at length how it lived up to his exacting standards. “The Xenith Shadow was the only helmet that could fit my needs on the field,” Brown said. “I only get one head and neck, so I gotta make sure when guys are trying to take my head off, I got the right lid.” (Thankfully, the helmet used in the photo shoot did not feature a Raiders logo.) NFL media members played along, with Schefter sending a strange straight-out-of-a-press-release tweet about how the helmet “makes him feel more agile and comfortable, and allows for better visibility.”

It was not announced that Xenith paid Brown for his glowing review, but it certainly seems like the company did. And while Brown may have begun the helmet grievance out of his allegiance to the Schutt AiR Advantage, somewhere along the line he and his agent must have realized that they’d created a chance to profit off of Brown’s repeated stressing that he was willing to walk away from his prolific football career unless some brave company created the perfect piece of equipment. I suspect that there was a bidding war to give AB a helmet endorsement, and I suspect that Xenith won. Of course, the biggest winner was Brown, who was laughed at for his behavior and then turned that laughter into cash.

It’s worth noting that Brown’s decision to nearly fight Oakland’s GM came after Brown had announced his helmet deal. Perhaps Helmetgate helped him realize that he could plan out supposedly erratic behavior and harness the world’s lack of trust in him for his personal gain. (This is neither here nor there, but I also believe Brown intentionally dyed his mustache a shade of gold that does not naturally appear on any human’s hair—a look that made him appear as if he’d just scarfed down a mustard-laden hot dog—to generate headlines like “Antonio Brown’s blonde mustache makes it hard to take him seriously” and convince the Steelers that he must be traded. Brown dyed his mustache back the day after going to Oakland.)

I believe Brown embellished the helmet situation to his benefit, and that belief makes me further believe that he was capable of a bigger coup. If Brown really was pulling the strings in pursuit of signing with New England, well … business is boomin’.