Antonio Brown lost at least $14M, yet he comes out a winner in Patriots power play

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Last March, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were weighing their options to ship out Antonio Brown, there was a preferred destination if all things were equal for the star wide receiver. If the money was going to be the same in Brown’s contract extension, if the compensation sent to the Steelers was going to be the same, then it was an easy call for Brown’s camp.

In a perfect world, he’d be a New England Patriot. And now, thanks to an absurdly imperfect five months, he finally is.

Why it didn’t happen last March was simple. According to a source familiar with New England’s interest in Brown last spring – including the talks between the Steelers and Patriots – it came down to this: Pittsburgh didn’t want Brown in New England. The Steelers knew they’d likely have to grapple with the Patriots in the 2019 playoff picture. Beyond that, there was already bitter feelings born out of competition between the two teams (not to mention the whole LeGarrette Blount fiasco in 2014). Sending Brown into the arms of the Patriots and Bill Belichick would not only be costly to Pittsburgh’s own playoff chances, it would border on humiliating. Especially if the deal wasn’t for a significant package in return. It would mean waving the white flag to all the parties the Steelers simply didn’t want to surrender to. From Brown to Bill Belichick to Tom Brady.

“Pittsburgh just wasn’t going to do it,” said a source familiar with the Patriots’ pursuit of Brown. “It was never going to happen. No matter what [agent Drew Rosenhaus] thought or whoever else, there was no way the Steelers were sending him to New England.”

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But the Raiders? They weren’t a threat. There was no animus there. And it was a franchise in a rebuild. Seeing Oakland and Brown in the playoffs was a slim chance. This was the smart move – and Pittsburgh took it. Five months later, with Brown being cut by the Raiders and signing with the Patriots, Pittsburgh is suddenly staring at precisely what it didn’t want to happen. Living a completely unexpected version of a nightmare that it tried to avoid.

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Antonio Brown had his eyes on the Patriots earlier this year. (AP)
Antonio Brown had his eyes on the Patriots earlier this year. (AP)

Bill Belichick ‘won’t handle Antonio the way Jon Gruden did’

How could two franchises get completely turned on their ears in just five months? And why the hell would the Patriots – a supposedly consummate “Team Before Player” organization – continue to pursue arguably the league’s biggest “Player Before Team” reputation? Well, it’s pretty basic.

“Because Bill respects the s - - - out of the talent,” said a source close to Belichick. “That’s why he wanted Antonio Brown in the first place. He also won’t handle Antonio the way Jon Gruden did. Bill is working with six Super Bowl rings. He’s not going to put up with anything. Nothing. He does not care. He’ll tell that to Antonio from the start, too. He’ll confront him and tell him the truth. If Antonio becomes a problem, he’ll be gone. It’s as simple as that.”

Indeed, that might be the ultimate “out” for the Patriots, by not being bound to Brown further than tomorrow. By making it known to Brown that the organization respects his talent but also expects his conformity to the mission. The same way it did with Randy Moss and Corey Dillon and Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the Patriots will be ready to eject whenever they feel it’s necessary.

Belichick couldn’t care less about anything that happened with Brown before the second he stepped into the Patriots franchise. If he can help New England win, great. If he can’t, he’ll be gone. That’s a simple calculus. Especially when the math hasn’t gotten exponentially more reliable at the wide receiver position. Sure, Josh Gordon has been reinstated. Relying on him is a week-to-week proposition because history has shown that it has to be that way. Julian Edelman is Julian Edelman. N’Keal Harry is a rookie and his health has already inhibited high expectations of an impact.

But you add Brown into the mix? That’s a no-brainer because not a whole lot has changed about why the Patriots liked him back in March. If anything, the Patriots have a reason to like him more now because they may get a more committed player for even less risk than last spring. Just a contract that will surely have protections and absolutely zero draft compensation. And with a message Brown should be hearing crystal clear right now:

Welcome to the team. You’re completely expendable, but we’d like to do great things with you. Do things our way and everything will work out. Direct any concerns to our trophy room.

Tom Brady and Antonio Brown share a word after a 2016 game. (AP)
Tom Brady and Antonio Brown share a word after a 2016 game. (AP)

Brown could get last laugh in this circus

It’s possible Brown will be completely on message with the Patriots. Particularly knowing that this is a relationship that has to last for only five months for everyone to reap massive wins. Not just for the Patriots to get another Super Bowl, but for Brown to stick it to everyone in the process, from Mike Mayock and the Raiders, to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, and everyone in between who criticized him since the unceremonious end of the 2018 season.

Of course, something like that would drive the “no single player before the entire team” crowd insane. Only because it would mean Brown ultimately forced his way off two teams in six months and came out with at least some measure of victory. Here’s the thing: New England doesn’t care because New England isn’t the fool in this story. The Patriots have already won. The Raiders are wearing a dunce cap. The Steelers look like they just got gamed despite their best efforts. All while the Patriots get to test-drive Brown without any real worries about repercussions. Even if it doesn’t work out, the pages of history will say it was a Brown problem, not a Patriots problem.

Which brings us back to Brown’s place in this. He won a partial victory. No matter what your opinion is of how he achieved it, he’s coming out of this on a better team and with a better quarterback. It’s not a total victory, mind you. Brown still forfeited at least $14 million in guaranteed money – even in a best-case scenario for the 2019 season. Could he eventually win that money back down the line? Yes. One more deal in 2020 would likely do exactly that. But he isn’t there yet. And the risk right now is pretty much all on him.

The flip side: He has put himself in position to gain everything back and maybe more. After all, nothing reinvents a damaged reputation more quickly than success. And no team has shown the ability to remake the memory of a player more than the Patriots. We forget what the narrative was around Randy Moss before he went to the Patriots. The same with Dillon. Here’s a refresher: It was a whole lot of bad. Mountains of criticism. And to go back to Blount, the guy’s career was basically saved by New England twice.

It’s precisely why this isn’t just a no-brainer for the Patriots. It’s the most obvious choice for Brown, too. And maybe it was always the right choice for him. Maybe this is the union that truly would have been the right match back in March. A marriage that might have altered the timeline of the past five months.

None of that matters now. Brown fought his way off two teams and found a more perfect world through a totally imperfect path. Critics can scream all they want. New England couldn’t care less. This was, is and will always be about winning. And that’s the only program Antonio Brown needs to get with to make the next five months work for everyone.

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