Antonio Brown refused to burn bridge with Tom Brady, and it got him back into the NFL

Roughly two years ago, Antonio Brown started working on a canvas of grievances.

It was a wildly abstract and unquestionably messy passion of the mercurial NFL wideout, with social media contours aimed wherever his jarring bursts of emotion took him. It was almost a form of attack art — rarely aspiring toward the deft precision of Michelangelo but always leaning into the all-angles aggression of Jackson Pollock.

Through it all, one undeniable interpretation emerged about Antonio Brown: His residue of anger was unpredictable, capable of splattering critics, allies, friends or strangers. On Twitter and Instagram and any digital spotlight in between, he recreated himself as an indignant expressionist who was both martyr and muse.

All inspired by his unrelenting belief that his failures were the product of someone else. Maybe even everyone else.

But never Tom Brady.

In this long and jagged path back into the NFL, that’s the distinction that matters. Brown’s pièce de résistance of retribution was ultimately defined by the one guy who never made an appearance inside it.

Tom Brady greets Antonio Brown before an NFL game when the two were on the Patriots.
Tom Brady, right, has long been in Antonio Brown's corner, even after the mercurial wideout burned nearly every other bridge in and around the league. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Antonio Brown’s long list of grievances never included Tom Brady

That guy was Brady, who is unequivocally the single most responsible person for Brown being a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today. This reality materialized only seven months after Brady’s own head coach, Bruce Arians, said signing Brown was never going to happen because Brown “is not a fit in our locker room.”

What’s notable about Arians? He was one of Brown’s former coaches with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of Brown’s prominent stops when the wide receiver was burning NFL bridges.

Arians was very much in the middle of that retribution tour. And not by accident, either. He put himself right on Brown’s map, calling the receiver a diva and drawing a response that featured Brown noting the coach’s own diva-esque penchant for wearing dark shades and Kangol hats.

Fun times. It was also a moment that was lost — until now — in Brown’s abyss of the absurd. It’s a vast and deep ravine that is filled with so many names, you’re likely to forget half of them.

If you have a truly encyclopedic memory, you might recall Brown taking social media swipes (and a few literal swipes) at ...

Ben Roethlisberger, Emmanuel Sanders, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Nick Foles, Julio Jones, Baker Mayfield, Derek Carr, Golden Tate, Richie Incognito, Eric Weddle, the Steelers, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Mike Mayock, Jon Gruden, the NFL, the team owners, the players union, the media, Roger Goodell, DeMaurice Smith, Drew Rosenhaus, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, ESPN, The NFL Network, Sports Illustrated, his father Eddie (on Christmas Eve), the mother of his children (on live-streamed video), multiple women accusing him of sexual assault, a former condo landlord and the Hollywood (Florida) Police Department.

Surely, there are many others who were left out of that roll call. When it comes to the recollection of Brown’s social media or real-world beefing, brevity takes a hard fall.

All of which makes it more compelling that Brady never caught a stray elbow.

You need only to Google the simple phrase “Antonio Brown rips” (using the quotation marks) to get a return of thousands of entries. But repeat the search with the phrase “Antonio Brown rips Tom Brady” (once again using the quotation marks), and you get a big fat nothingburger of “No results found.”

Tom Brady repeatedly supported Antonio Brown

How exactly did Tom Brady avoid being inserted into the simplest and most-searched Antonio Brown headline?

Brady was the most famous and powerful person in the NFL to cement himself into Brown’s corner throughout the chaos of the last 14 months. That time span of support included Brown’s signing in New England, the subsequent (and ongoing) sexual assault case in a Florida civil court, his release by the Patriots and then months of spiraling and troubling incidents that the NFL mandated mental health counseling and treatment as part of Brown’s conditions for eventual reinstatement.

Through all of that, Brady never distanced himself from Brown.

Neither on social media — where Brady repeatedly interacted and showed support for Brown — nor in private life, which included Brady visiting Brown in Miami in January and then continuing to talk about teaming up again if Brady left the Patriots.

Of course, that latter plan hit a snag when Brady chose to play in Tampa Bay for Arians, who almost immediately moved to suck all the oxygen out of that possibility.

But that was then … this is now … and Brady is Brady.

Even after Arians put the kibosh on Brown, a league source told Yahoo Sports that shortly after Brown’s eight-game NFL suspension in July, he was still talking about potentially playing with Brady again — even if that seemed like a pipe dream given Arians’ objections.

This hope was expressed by Brown even after he had spent time working out with Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Geno Smith, who both went to bat for him inside their organization. Even with the entire quarterback room being willing to put Brown onto the radar of Seahawks management, one thing was still clear: If any player was going to be the one to open the NFL door for Brown, that player had to be a kingmaker among kingmakers.

There is none bigger in the NFL than Brady. His age and “all-in” commitment from the Buccaneers may have actually given him more power to press for such a move with Brown — even over some hand-wringing from Arians.

This was possible because Brown never even came remotely close to pointing his frustrations in the direction of Brady during his litany of low moments over the last year.

The wideout couldn’t even say that much about Belichick, who Brown had largely spared from his rhetoric — until a photo popped up on the wideout’s instagram of Brown and Belichick hugging. It included the hashtag #YouChangedOnMe, which some in the Patriots organization absolutely took as a shot at Belichick.

It was Brady who remained entirely unscathed in the fallout. He remained through the ugliness of the sexual assault allegations that triggered Brown’s eight-game suspension. He was a friend who stuck through Brown waging a war on the Patriots with an NFLPA grievance over money. And he even stood by Brown after the receiver took a monumental poke at Kraft — who Brady also counts as a close friend — over Kraft’s now-dismissed misdemeanor prostitution case.

The why behind all of Brady’s support — when so many others bailed — has yet to be fleshed out. It surely will be from this point forward, as Brown becomes a short-term rental with monumental potential for failure.

It could be as simple as Brady respecting Brown as a football player and wanting to do anything to win.

It could be a complicated as friendship and all manner of things between Brady and Brown from behind a curtain of privacy we can’t see.

But there’s little question that all this came to fruition because Brown did manage to pull back on his pièce de résistance of retribution. For all the attacks and all the splattering, nothing ugly ever hit Brady in the process. While we were all focused on who was getting smeared by the indignant impressionist, the most important part of his chaotic Attack Art was what wasn’t inside it, or more to the point, who wasn’t.

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