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Opinion: Antonio Brown's blow-up with Buccaneers had no victims, only willing participants

·5 min read
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  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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  • Antonio Brown
    Antonio Brown
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  • Bruce Arians
    Bruce Arians
    American football player and coach

A day later, Antonio Brown’s abrupt exit from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers still makes no sense.

A few fuzzy rumors have floated by like tumbleweeds.

But there’s no trail of breadcrumbs leading us to the true reason behind the troubled wide receiver’s decision to strip down on the sideline during Sunday's game against the New York Jets and abandon the last team willing to put up with him.

Did Brown refuse to re-enter the third quarter of a game his team trailed by double digits because he believed he wasn’t healthy enough to play? Or did he not?

Did Bucs coach Bruce Arians kick Brown off the sideline, or did the player throw a tantrum and leave on his own?

Brown hasn’t provided any insight on social media. And Arians both after the game and during his news conference on Monday remained tight-lipped.

“I don’t know that he was,” Arians said when asked to confirm reports that Brown refused to play because he was injured. Nobody told Arians if that was the case, the coach said. “He was cleared to play last week, played good. Cleared to play last week.”

Asked to provide further insight, Arians declined to share details of his talk with Brown before the receiver left the sideline, and said only, “It’s pretty obvious what happened. He left the field and that was it.”

OPINION: Tom Brady says Antonio Brown needs our compassion. Is he right?

TIMELINE: Antonio Brown's abrupt exit from Sunday's game just the latest in long line of controversies

Antonio Brown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on against the New York Jets during the game at MetLife Stadium on January 02, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Antonio Brown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on against the New York Jets during the game at MetLife Stadium on January 02, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The coach denied Sunday’s episode was the culmination of something that had been boiling beneath the surface for several weeks. However, a person familiar with the situation, who spoke anonymously because they weren’t permitted to speak publicly on the matter, told USA TODAY Sports that ever since Brown returned from his suspension for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status, there had indeed been friction between the receiver and his coaches.

However, asked to explain Brown’s reasons, Arians said Monday, “You have to ask him, brother. I have no clue.”

So the mystery will live on. But what’s painstakingly clear is that once again, an NFL team reached the point where Brown’s talent no longer could overshadow his bad behavior. Brown is now, in all likelihood, out of chances in the NFL, and the Buccaneers – like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots before them – are hit with the realization that loyalty to players like Brown scarcely pays off.

Or does it?

The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl thanks in part to Brown, who last February recorded five catches for 22 yards and a touchdown in the victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

But now, as Tampa Bay needs him most – with their receiving corps hobbled by injuries – Brown did what he does best: chose himself over team. And now, the Buccaneers' chances of repeating as champs have taken a significant hit.

Although Arians was purposely less than insightful, the coach's frustration was evident, and who could blame him?

The Buccaneers gave Brown his last shot. Arians and quarterback Tom Brady stuck their necks out for him. The coach had even spoken publicly about how in his eyes, Brown had repaired his image and was in the process of penning a new narrative surrounding himself.

That belief, of course, wound up proving false.

Brown managed to suppress his selfishness long enough to win a Super Bowl and earn a second contract in Tampa. But as he got comfortable, he gradually reverted to his old ways and now has in all likelihood ended his NFL career.

Meanwhile, the Bucs must hope that Mike Evans’ strained hamstring will soon heal, that Rob Gronkowski can continue his resurgence and that less-heralded Cyril Grayson, Breshad Perriman, Tyler Johnson and others can help shoulder the load throughout the postseason.

Despite the tough spot that Brown has placed the Buccaneers in, Arians acknowledged feeling conflicting emotions.

“It’s very hard,” he said. “I wish him well and hope if he needs help (he) gets some. But it’s very hard because I do care about him.”

Brady on Sunday said that Brown needs compassion, and the mental health conversation always tends to come up when Brown acts out. But the receiver’s repeated pattern raises the question: is this indeed a mental health matter, and has Brown suffered from years of non-treatment or inadequate support? Or is he simply a bad guy, one who has always gotten away with selfish misbehavior because people in his life have preferred to give him a pass because of his elite athletic gifts?

It’s hard to summon sympathy for Brown while watching replays of Sunday’s exit. He quit on a team in the middle of a Super Bowl repeat quest, and forfeited a significant sum in potential incentive bonuses.

His actions have hurt the men who considered him a friend.

But the Buccaneers aren’t really victims in this either.

They rolled the dice on Brown last year, and again this offseason, and again when allowing him to return from suspension knowing full well that this thing could at some point blow up in their faces. They ignored Brown’s extensive track record of choosing himself over those around him with the hope that their graciousness would encourage him to fly straight.

But by offering Brown a fourth chance, Arians, Brady and the Bucs simply added themselves to a long list of enablers who have helped create the circus act that this once elite athlete has become.

As a result, the Buccaneers can’t be surprised that this ended poorly. And perhaps that’s why Arians opted against going into great detail and simply wished Brown well. Maybe that’s why when I asked whether he had any regrets about this whole experiment, he said, “I have no regrets. I just want the best for him.”

The coach and team turned a blind eye to years of troubling behavior so they could capitalize on his rare talents. It did help them win one Super Bowl, but now, when they need Brown the most, their acceptance has blown up in their faces.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Antonio Brown's Buccaneers saga, everyone comes out looking bad