From retirement threat to frostbitten feet, Antonio Brown puts entire premise of 'Hard Knocks' on notice

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Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
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Even coming on the heels of a Cleveland Browns “Hard Knocks” that might have been the best reality TV ever created in the NFL, the next few weeks should be the franchise’s true opus. But the maelstrom known as Antonio Brown, a whirling dervish of diva, is more likely to decimate the credibility of this entertainment franchise in the next few weeks than drive it to new heights.

“Hard Knocks” wanted drama. Brown delivered. And now we get to see who truly has the power in this marriage between HBO and the NFL.

Of the litany of revelations from the latest 24-hour cycle of Antonio Brown chaos, that is certainly one of them. There is no question whether the material is there for some Hall of Fame episodes in the coming days. But if the network can’t land something meaningful in the midst of this craziness – from the landing strip of jaw-dropping details already laid out by several reports – then it means we aren’t watching reality TV. Instead, it’s the kind of state-run television that has made the show an often forgettable spectacle in the past.

FILE - In this June 11, 2019, file photo, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown is shown during an NFL football minicamp in Alameda, Calif. The Raiders and their big personalities like Antonio Brown and Richie Incognito are ready to be stars on HBO's "Hard Knocks." (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Antonio Brown has proven to be a handful for the Raiders. (AP)

‘Hard Knocks’ drops ball on AB’s frostbitten feet

If you’re putting money down on where this one is headed, bet the under(whelming). There have already been some signs that HBO is going to get anything meaningful slashed to the bone in the coming weeks.

Take Episode 1, which as it turns out, seems even more disappointing in the rear-view mirror than it did a day ago. It largely landed with a thud after dancing around the problem with – to coin HBO’s term – Brown’s “bad” feet. Instead, the ultimate inside access of “Hard Knocks” basically delivered a hot air balloon ride, some rookies riding horses, a little bit of Derek Carr and the subtly interesting moment of head coach Jon Gruden establishing a no-fly zone when it comes to rookie hazing. And even that line by Gruden about hazing was largely glossed over in the episode, given that it could have provided an interesting entry point into the darker parts of offensive lineman Richie Incognito’s history.

Basically, HBO delivered a bunch of empty calories and then almost nothing on the parts of the Brown situation that actually made it dramatic. Specifically, the reality that he had frozen the bottoms of his feet in cryotherapy chamber. If anything, Brown’s children asked the toughest questions and might have provided the most interesting micro-second of filming, when in the midst of one of the children asking him about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Brown grinned and flashed a quick look at the camera – presumably to see if “Hard Knocks” was watching.

It was mildly amusing. But it ended up being unfulfilling when the reality sunk in that “Hard Knocks” had nothing to reveal about the frostbite on Brown’s feet. It almost certainly means that the Raiders intervened in the production to keep that piece of information out. And we still might not know the nature of Brown’s foot problems right now, had it not been for Gruden’s former Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick – Chris Simms – revealing on ProFootballTalk what had happened in the deep freeze of a cryotherapy session. As an aside, it’s interesting that it was a guy with Gruden ties who came up with this piece of information.

Did Hue Jackson, Browns teach Jon Gruden a lesson?

What’s more disappointing now is that there was even more going on than anyone knew. And it was ultimately pushed into the spotlight thanks to Brown consistently missing practice and then having a grievance hearing with the NFL over his helmet. That triggered a string of revelations that the franchise has been dealing with this helmet lunacy for some time. A fact that wasn’t even a whisper in the first “Hard Knocks” episode.

All of this takes us back to one reality. This all should be an Oklahoma land rush for the franchise. It should be the kind of thing that can elevate “Hard Knocks” another notch above the fantastic production in Cleveland last season. But it likely won’t because of the one thing we can never forget: If the franchise involved wants this to be a “nothing to see here” propaganda machine that rings hollow on the most problematic storylines, then it will be. And in Episode 1, that’s what it was. More than we even realized.

Maybe it’s because Gruden was never going to get on board with this whole production. Or maybe it’s because he saw the mistake Browns coach Hue Jackson made last season, allowing too much reality into this reality show. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the first week was an NFL-inspired borefest that took all the juiciest cuts and dried them into beef jerky.

We’ll see if that changes now. There’s no way HBO and the Raiders can hide what is going on with Brown now and still insist with a straight face that this is a “behind the scenes” look at the Raiders. Anyone who has been around Gruden knows that when the Brown news lit up on Friday, the relationship between the player and coach hit a crossroads inside the franchise. It might have already been there and we just hadn’t seen it.

Now the gritty details of this whole thing are in the hands of HBO, which undoubtedly has a fight on its hands with the Raiders when it comes to showing the rest of us what the inside of a catastrophe looks like. Making a sanitized production now about this Oakland mess would be like making a movie about the Titanic and editing out the iceberg.

“Hard Knocks” got exactly what it wanted in Antonio Brown. And that might be the worst thing that could have happened.

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