Antonio Brown’s NFL career has consistently been a compromise between his talent and his attitude.
Until this summer, he was a Pittsburgh Steeler. His performances on the field have never been in question because they’ve been nothing short of exceptional since he arrived in the league in 2010 – he’s a seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All Pro and has 11,207 receiving yards from 837 receptions.
In his second season, he became the first player in NFL history to have more than 1,000 yards receiving and returning in the same year. In each of his last six seasons he topped 100 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards. He led the league in receiving yards in 2014 and 2017. In short, he’s been the best wide receiver of his generation.
His time in Pittsburgh, however, saw fractious relationships develop, particularly with his coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Tomlin, as a result, has come under fire recently for giving Brown – and “Big Ben” to some extent – too much leeway when it comes to discipline off the field.
It was all fine when the Steelers were regularly in the postseason, but that’s no longer the foregone conclusion it used to be. Right now, the Baltimore Ravens - and even the Cleveland Browns - have more chance, something that was unthinkable two years ago. It now appears the juggling act between talent and tantrums is starting to breakdown.
In his last year in Pittsburgh, Brown burned virtually every bridge. As well as the spats with Tomlin and Roethlisberger, he had issues with Juju Smith-Schuster; the rookie wideout he was supposed to take under his wing. Instead, he got jealous about Smith-Schuster doing well and called him out for backing his QB and reaching out to him for advice when he was a college player. Both of which are completely acceptable things to do.
Today, having signed with and been kicked off the Oakland Raiders within a matter of months, Brown personifies the good and bad better than anyone in the league. He’s just signed for the champions while simultaneously facing a civil lawsuit filed last week in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a former trainer.
In these situations, the NFL exercises what could rightly be described as cognitive dissonance. In terms of the Brown situation, this is not new territory for the league. For context, earlier this year, Kansas City Chiefs agreed a contract extension worth a potential $54 million with Tyreek Hill, just months after he was accused of beating his son by the child’s mother (someone he had previously been found guilty of abusing in a domestic violence case in 2015).
Hill had also been allowed to continue to play by the NFL despite having a previous conviction of domestic abuse prior to him being drafted by the the Chiefs in 2015. This charge was then later wiped from his record.
It’s just one example of the NFL being no stranger to violent crimes.
So while Brown missed the Patriots first game, he played in their second and scored a touchdown almost immediately. The conspiracy theory is that this was Brown’s intention all along; that he always wanted to go to the Patriots, but the Steelers wouldn’t trade him to a rival. So, he went anywhere else and orchestrated an abrupt exit through bad behaviour, allowing the Patriots to pick him up as a free agent.
It’s a long shot, but not impossible. It would also turn him from an unreliable troublemaker who’s impossible to work with, to a ruthless mastermind, with a plan to rival anything Machiavelli ever concocted.
The truly awful aspect of his current narrative is that, should he be found guilty of sexual assault, he has every chance of playing again in the NFL given his talent on the field. That’s how much teams want to win and that’s how much he can help them do it.
Jan 2017: After Roethlisberger asked Brown to lay low on social media, Brown live-streamed on Facebook from the locker room shortly after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round. Brown was fined $10,000, but it later emerged the had signed a $224,000 deal with Facebook to create content for them.
Oct 2018: Throws furniture from the balcony of his Florida apartment and nearly hits a two-year-old boy.
Dec 2018: Argues with Roethlisberger at practice and throws a football at him. He then skipped practice leading to their final, crucial game of the regular season, when he was benched as a result.
Jan 2019: During Tomlin’s end-of-season conference, Brown posted a live video with former teammate James Harrison, alluding to the fact that he wanted a trade. Tomlin could be audibly heard in the background, with Brown laughing at him.
Feb 2019: Despite having three years on his contract, Brown again takes to social media to say he’ll be leaving the Steelers.
March 2019: Brown gets traded to the Oakland Raiders for a third and fifth round pick, that will pay him $50.13 million over the three seasons
May 2019: The NFL brings in a new helmet policy. At practice, Brown gets caught wearing his old (now unauthorised) Steelers helmet that he painted silver. Brown storms off and leaves practice.
July 2019: Brown misses practice after getting frostbite on his feet from a cryogenic chamber in which he didn’t wear the correct protection.
Sep 2019: Just days before the season opener against the Denver Broncos, Brown has to be separated from Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock in a heated exchange. He is fined but posts the confidential letter stating so on his Instagram, further violating the franchise’s code of conduct.
Brown apologises to his teammates and coach Jon Gruden says that he will play against the Broncos. The following day Brown posts a two-minute video on his YouTube channel featuring a private phone call with Gruden.
Brown is fined more than $200,000 and voids $29.125 million of his guaranteed money. He takes to social media to say “release me”. He gets released by the Raiders and within hours it’s announced that he has signed with the New England Patriots, although not in time to play in game week 1.
Three days later Brown is accused of raping a woman who formerly worked as his physical trainer, according to a federal lawsuit. NFL to conduct its own investigation.
Plays his first game for the Patriots and scores his first touchdown.
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