As Antonio Brown's problems mount, the NFL's willingness to look at him through a football lens fades

MOBILE, Alabama — During a wandering conversation this week with a high-ranking NFL executive about the impending free agency of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the medical outlook of Alabama draft prospect Tua Tagovailoa, the future of mercurial wideout Antonio Brown was broached. More specifically, a single question was posed: At this stage of Brown’s spiraling life-trajectory, what would it take for a team to consider him as an option?

“I think a mental health aspect would have to be a part of the process,” the executive said. “I think you would have to start there.”

And that was it. That was the end of the conversation. No discussion of Brown’s talent or age. No talk about finances or style of play. No mention at all about the 2020 season. Just one bottom-line NFL opinion that seems to be orbiting Brown more closely than any of his exploits as a football player. A refrain that has become familiar to fellow NFL players and the media that cover them, and appears to be simmering in the league’s front offices and coaching staffs.

Brown’s future? It’s less a conversation about football and more a conversation about “help” — the latter standing as a softened term to be inserted in the place of “mental health.”

MIAMI, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 23:  NFL wide reciever Antonio Brown looks on courtside during the second half between the Miami Heat and the Memphis Grizzlies at American Airlines Arena on October 23, 2019 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It’s a walking-on-eggshells descriptor that has been repeated often over the past nine days, which has featured (in chronological order): Brown live-streaming a profanity-laced and racist denunciation of an ex-girlfriend and Hollywood (Fla.) police officers as Brown’s ex picked up their children on Jan. 13; his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, reportedly sending Brown a client separation notice on Jan. 16 that was open for reversal if Brown underwent counseling; on Tuesday, Hollywood police closing off the area around Brown’s home to investigate an alleged burglary and battery incident involving the driver of a moving truck. Police confirmed to Yahoo Sports that Brown refused to open his residence to speak to officers following the incident and remains a subject of the battery investigation. And on Wednesday an arrest warrant was issued for Brown.

Antonio Brown’s incidents are piling up

The NFL has been monitoring all of this, of course. It’s expected that if any information follows, it will be folded into the NFL’s already ongoing personal conduct investigation. That probe centers on allegations against Brown from two women of rape, sexual assault and intimidating texts. One of the women, a former trainer for Brown, has filed a civil suit over her claims. Brown has denied all of the allegations, also filing a countersuit against his former trainer. He also has multiple grievances pending against the Raiders and New England Patriots for nearly $40 million in salary that he says he is owed after being cut by both teams this season.

The entirety of all of this has developed since early September. And it followed Brown’s unraveling relationship with the Raiders, in which he found himself at odds with the team and the league over his use of a non-compliant helmet, causing a schism of missed practices and leading to a confrontation with the team’s general manager, Mike Mayock. Which, lest anyone forget, followed a nasty departure from Pittsburgh that left Brown and multiple former Steelers teammates sniping at each other.

That has been a lot for suitors to chew on, maybe even enough to overshadow what has been a Hall of Fame caliber career since Brown entered the league in 2010. Make no mistake, NFL teams are absorbing all of it. And many have been left wondering what is driving Brown these past few months, in which he has used social media to attack his perceived enemies and also those close to him (like Rosenhaus). If there was any question about that, one only needed to understand the fallout of Brown’s workout for the New Orleans Saints in late December.

Problems during AB’s Saints workout

According to a league source with knowledge of the workout, Brown showcased his considerable talent — but not before grousing about Saints athletic trainers and being forced to take a physical. The source said Brown also had some issues with equipment he was expected to use during the workout, once again raising the specter of his rift with the Raiders last summer. When it was all over, the Saints privately framed the failure to sign Brown as being driven by the league refusing to provide clarity on its personal conduct investigation. That was indeed part of the picture. The Saints asked the NFL for guidance multiple times and received none. But at least some in the building felt Brown’s visit was a high-maintenance affair that carried the familiar characteristics of his previously reported incidents.

Perhaps the most interesting development afterward came when Brown called the Saints workout a “publicity stunt” staged by the franchise. That didn’t sit well with at least one team executive, who has since reached out to Rosenhaus and suggested the agent should speak to Brown about getting into some counseling.

It’s clear that executive isn’t alone. If anything, the past eight days have only heightened the reticence of NFL teams to consider Brown. When Tuesday’s news spread around the Senior Bowl that police were again at Brown’s home, reactions among some of the NFL’s rank and file was less about shock and more about bewilderment. Rosenhaus cutting Brown loose raised eyebrows, but few are questioning the why, largely because they’ve seen the answer on TMZ or Brown’s own social media feeds for the past two weeks, if not the past five months.

It’s growing more and more apparent that the NFL’s deeply concerning Antonio Brown football story is moving into a space where it no longer contains talk about football, but offers an overwhelming abundance of deep concern. Maybe to the point that talking about mental health being a part of his process isn’t new. It’s been a part of the NFL’s Antonio Brown process for weeks, if not months. And it doesn’t take teams or an agent admitting it to understand why.

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