Business is boomin’ for commentators when it comes to all of the drama surrounding Antonio Brown’s work life, from studio talking heads to
You certainly can’t deny the temptation to do so; hell, I’m writing about it right now. The story has everything you could ever ask out of it: a mercurial wide receiver, an egotistical head coach, ridiculous off-field shenanigans, 32 rabid fanbases secretly wishing they could have a superstar talent at a vastly under-market rate, the fantasy football seasons of millions in flux.
It’s hard to believe at this point that it’s been 10 years since Brown was just a late-round prospect coming out of Central Michigan. A sixth-round pick who was considered too small to be a major contributor and projected to be, at best, a special teamer with kick and punt return ability, Brown was destined to be a practice squad standout or churn at the bottom of the various 53-man rosters. Instead, he secured his spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers and returned his very first kickoff for a touchdown.
The rest is history.
Brown would go on to secure a starting role with Pittsburgh, accumulating seven Pro Bowl appearances, four appearances as a first-team All-Pro receiver, and one season as a second-team All-Pro. Along the way, he led the league in receptions and receiving yards twice and led the NFL in touchdown receptions just last season (while involved in some inter-team squabbling and getting benched for the final game of the season, nonetheless.)
His work ethic was undeniable, even before getting to Mt. Pleasant. Brown relentlessly pursued every option to chase his dream of playing professional football, growing up homeless in Miami’s Liberty City at the age of 16. Brown had to face rejection from Florida State coming out of Miami Norwood HS, and move to North Carolina to play prep ball after being rejected again, this time by Alcorn State. He played just five games at North Carolina Prep Tech, and received one FBS offer to FIU, back in his hometown. That didn’t pan out. Brown worked the phones from there, looking for walk-on opportunities, and finally reached Butch Jones at West Virginia, eventually following him to CMU when Jones was announced as their head coach.
He had to learn wide receiver from the ground up after primarily playing quarterback in high school, with his former receiving coach Zach Azziani telling the Detroit Free Press about the first time they asked him to block:
Brown, with the help of Azziani both on-and-off the field, made the switch from quarterback to wide receiver, and earned a scholarship within weeks of arriving at Kelly/Shorts. It was at Central where he finally had some semblance of structure, of security; an environment in which he could work on focusing his skill.
Brown put in the work, earning his first participation against Kansas in 2007, and never looking back, becoming MAC Offensive Freshman of the Year. In 2008 and 2009, he would be named a first-team All-American for his great play both as a receiver and as a returner. Brown left CMU as the all-time single-season leader in receptions (110) and the NCAA’s 13th all-time leader in receptions (305), as well as the NCAA’s 10th best punt returner by yards per return for a career.
His former receivers coach at Pittsburgh, Scottie Montgomery, remarked about his work ethic and how it developed during their 2010 Super Bowl run, when Brown emerged as an unknown star.
Four years later, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brown was once again a topic of conversation after receiving the newspaper’s Sportsman of the Year for the second season in a row:
His commitment to the game cannot be questioned. His main frustration in Pittsburgh was feeling like he wasn’t a valued part of the team, even despite breaking NFL records and leading the league in multiple categories. It’s too convenient to the narrative of the diva wide receiver to remember that Ben Roethlisberger threw him and teammate Le’Veon Bell under the bus several times in 2018 and prior, putting a severe strain on that relationship.
The work ethic and the statistics cannot be called into question on the subject of Antonio Brown either, which makes the media narrative that he’s unwilling to put in the effort very silly. Even when he was involved in that helmet dispute, Brown was still working to rehab into game shape coming off of getting frostbite in a freak accident in the offseason. When he lost the appeals about his helmet, he swallowed his pride, got a new helmet and came back to the Raiders training camp to work.
As fans, we expect players to be automatons; we expect them to just be happy to play a game, be thankful that one of 32 sterling-standard NFL organizations happened to take the chance on them, to be excited they get to play a role in a team. But most importantly, there’s the expectation for them to be happy that they get to do something only 2,000 or so people in the world can do and make a paycheck off of it-- especially if they can give you the edge in your fantasy league.
The reality is this: players are people, not robots. And organizations are not perfect, and do not necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Football, like most other office jobs, demands its employees to shut up and do their jobs. But, with football, you get millions of fans and media members hounding at you to do the same. It is a mental toll that we wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and yet, we will happily jump on anyone who falls out of line with the conventional “aw shucks” personality and cape for organizations which ultimately doesn’t care about the safety or well-being of a player as long as they continue to bring in jersey money, ticket sales and of course, wins, because surely, they have the best intentions of The Team™ at heart.
It’s this exact sentiment organizations depend upon to excuse bad decisions, and Antonio Brown fell victim to this circumstance not once, but twice.
The Steelers allowed bad blood to fester in their locker room to the point where it alienated several players into leaving. They failed to take into account the fact they helped Brown to grow as a player, and instead of leaning into that and showing they trusted him, told him multiple times they could perform better without him, in a year where he led the NFL in touchdown receptions and gained over 1,297 yards on 104 receptions. Pittsburgh even rejected New England’s advances to trade a first-rounder for Brown because they would rather punish Brown for not committing to the team (in their eyes) than give him what he deserved after years of sacrifice and face the prospect of playing him again. (Spoiler alert: they might end up doing so anyway.)
The Raiders messed things up from the start with their good cop/bad cop routine between Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, coddling and glad-talking Brown when he was slow to come back from a freak injury and then punishing him for conduct surrounding his helmet, and turning that non-issue into the start of a tire fire that couldn’t be put out. Oh, and let’s not forget the Raiders took away all his guaranteed money hours after he made a statement to the team apologizing for his behavior, and they still expected him to play on a vasty discounted rate for a player of his caliber. The Raiders are a bad organization with no structure, and it showed itself clearly.
This does not excuse Brown’s behavior over the past season, far from it.
Brown was rightly reprimanded for subordinate behavior in Pittsburgh, where he distracted an already divided locker room. He also did not leave Oakland with any semblance of grace, choosing instead to burn every bridge on the way out of town. As a professional, that kind of lashing out is extremely disgraceful.
But generally, I have found, people don’t take drastic measures unless they feel like they have no choice in the matter. Given what has happened to him over the last two seasons, I can understand why he could feel cornered. Antonio Brown, who has not had any choice in his football life up to this point, decided in the end there was only one person he could trust in this process: himself.
Players know when they’re unhappy in a situation, but they generally have no power to change that in the NFL. Right process or not, AB knows the type of environment he needs for him to be able to do his best work, and knows he needs to be in a place that will embrace him simply as a playmaker, rather than a scapegoat.
This is why the move to the Patriots makes perfect sense for Brown. New England, as an organization, has shown itself to be outstanding in on-the-field operations in terms of getting the best out of their players by minimizing distractions and finding the best ways to use the personnel they have. They’ve also shown the willingness to take chances on outcasts from other organizations who had problems in their previous spots (Randy Moss in 2007 comes immediately to mind, as does Albert Haynesworth, Junior Seau, Chad Johnson, Josh Gordon, etc.) and turn them into contributors.
This is the structure someone who is as high-maintenance about his craft as Antonio Brown craves. Brown told Central Michigan Life that the camaraderie and lack of distractions is what he missed most about CMU. “There’s not a lot to do out here, so it helped me stay focused,” Brown said. “Everyone was working hard, and we built bonds from the work we put in together.” New England will be an organization which replicates that feeling most closely. Foxborough, Massachusetts, is a village smaller in population than Mt. Pleasant, and coach Bill Belichick, a fellow football junkie, will be a mentor who will be able to get the most out of Brown as a player due to his playcalling and intricate understanding of personnel matchups. That’s something he hasn’t had thus far in his 10-year career.
New England has already shown they value him as a member of their team, both now and in the future, offering him a market-value deal (one-year for $15 million, $9 million guaranteed) while also offering him a one-year, $20 million option in 2020. The Pats, as usual, know what they’re doing, and showing Brown that level of trust before he’s even strapped a helmet on for them, will go a long way in helping Brown settle in and be an immediate contributor.
In the end, after everyone on social media got their jokes off, after multiple media commenters called him a clown or a bad human being or lectured him for “forgetting his virtues”, after everyone doubted his sanity, Brown has shown us all this: he knows his worth, and he acts on principle.
Brown told us as much in 2017, in an interview with The Oakland Press’ Nate Schneider:
He’s doing just that. And it’s time we believe in him too.