If Antonio Brown’s NFL career is really over, it ended on his terms.
It’s easy enough to lose sight of that in the bizarre sequence of events that transpired at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. To recap: Brown tossed his jersey and shoulder pads and exited the stadium shirtless via the north end zone while his Buccaneers teammates lined up against the Jets after the receiver got into an argument with coach Bruce Arians in the third quarter. Teammates Mike Evans and O.J. Howard tried to calm him, but Brown took off his gear, threw his undershirt and gloves up into the stands, and left, waving at the crowd as he ran into the tunnel. It was his second game back from a league suspension over his use of a fake vaccination card.
Stadium security initially thought Brown was a fan who leaped onto the field, according to ESPN. Brown asked state troopers in the tunnel for a ride to the airport, but was told no: “He was shirtless and he didn’t have his wallet,” a security officer told ESPN. Brown got a ride from a driver named Danny Chalet, who lists himself as a personal driver to several athletes, including Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley, on his Instagram account, where he posted several videos of himself and Brown arranging the ride, driving away from MetLife, and together in New York City later that night. Also later that night, Brown released a single titled “Pit Not the Palace,” which rhymes the words “palace” and “stylish,” and posted on social media thanking the Buccaneers “for the opportunity.” During his postgame press conference, Arians said that Brown “is no longer a Buc,” which, by that time, was self-evident.
It’s perverse that Brown’s behavior on Sunday was the final straw for his suitability to play for the Bucs when other incidents were not. In 2019, Brown’s former trainer said he raped her (the case wasn’t prosecuted due to statute of limitations, and the two settled out of court in 2021). The Bucs had this information when they signed Brown in 2020, and Arians continued to support Brown after he faked his vaccination status this season. It’s hard to say where, exactly, the Buccaneers drew the line with Brown’s behavior because he quit before they could fire him, but Sunday’s incident, apparently, was the limit. Talent affords second, third, fourth, and fifth chances in the NFL, and Antonio Brown has plenty of talent. Relying on him has always been a risky proposition, though, and Tampa Bay will now pay the price for having done so.
On Monday, Arians said he wished Brown the best and said that “if he needs help, I hope he gets some.” Arians said that his argument with Brown on the sideline was over Brown’s refusal to enter the game. Arians’s concerns echo those stated by quarterback Tom Brady after the game.
“It’s obviously a difficult situation,” Brady said on Sunday. “I think everybody should hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs.”
Brady’s and Arians’s concerns and calls for compassion seem sincere and justified. In the past, though, concern and compassion have taken the form of welcoming Brown back onto the team after various transgressions, and those decisions have been difficult to separate from the benefits Brown provides on the field. Brady lobbied for the Buccaneers to sign Brown last season after the Patriots dismissed him after a woman said Brown sent threatening text messages to her. (The woman had previously said Brown fired her after she rejected his sexual advances.) Last week, Arians described Brown as “a model citizen” to NBC’s Peter King when explaining his decision to welcome him back to the team after his suspension.
“I really loved the way he tried to fit in, worked his way in and gave us everything he had to go to the Super Bowl,” Arians said. “My whole attitude on him changed. I saw him trying to be a better human being. So I’ve got a totally different relationship than when it was when you and I talked last year.”
Arians was referring to a comment he made in 2020 after signing Brown. “He screws up one time, he’s gone,” he told King that October. That was after Arians had said Brown was “not a fit in our locker room,” before ultimately being convinced by Brady to sign him.
Brown played well for the Buccaneers for eight regular-season games and into the playoffs last year—he caught a touchdown in the Bucs’ Super Bowl win, and avoided controversy. By the beginning of this season, he’d submitted the fake vaccination card. I’m not sure how long Brown would have to go without incident for reasonable people to consider him a changed guy, but it’s longer than half a season.
More likely, Brown was able to show in half a season that he’s very useful to Tampa Bay’s offense. By the time his three-game suspension ended, the Buccaneers had lost receiver Chris Godwin for the year to a torn ACL. Evans was (and still is) nursing a hamstring injury. When Brown was first signed last year, he was just another building block placed atop a tall, stable tower in Tampa Bay’s offensive arsenal; a year later, injuries to other players positioned him to be part of the Bucs’ offensive foundation. He caught 10 passes for 101 yards in his first game back from suspension; he was at three for 26 yards when he left the game midway through on Sunday.
Arians himself said as much when the Buccaneers brought Brown back from suspension. “It’s in the best interest of our football team to bring him back,” he said in December.
Arians said Monday that he has “no regrets” over how he handled Brown. It’s entirely possible that Arians always factored in the chance that Brown would leave the team abruptly when calculating whether he served the team’s best interests. The 18 games Tampa Bay got out of Brown over the last two seasons might have been worth the drama and foolishness. Arians might not take a do-over if he could get one. Still, the Bucs now have to pay the price now, which comes in the form of figuring out how to overcome losing Brown and compete in the playoffs with a depleted roster.
Reserve receiver Cyril Grayson caught a game-winning touchdown from Brady on Sunday and will likely get many of Brown’s snaps. Scotty Miller was already due for more playing time and targets, and should certainly get both now. If a team has to go into the playoffs with its quarterback using Grayson and Miller as second and third receivers behind Evans, Brady is the quarterback you’d like to have on that team. Still, the 2021 Buccaneers are in a far weaker position than they were in 2020 ahead of their Super Bowl run.
It was that weakness that led the Bucs to rely on Brown in the first place. This is an ugly but true fact of football, where forgiveness is calibrated against what a person can do on the field. We don’t know where the Bucs would have drawn the line with Antonio Brown—he left before we could find out. The cost to the Bucs, after all they did to keep him on the field, now comes in the form of suddenly figuring out what to do without him.