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Bruce Arian says he’s pissed off. It makes for a good sound bite in the wake of two players lying to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about their COVID-19 vaccination status. But wideout Antonio Brown and safety Mike Edwards are still on Arians’ roster today, which is a place neither would be if anyone in power actually wanted them gone.
That has been the simplest of truths in the NFL when it comes to COVID or vaccination or even honesty in general. If someone is important enough in the overall construct of winning games, that person can survive nearly anything, whether it’s missing key games, breaking NFL and union protocols, misleading the general public, spreading misinformation or even lying to the point of making a head coach look foolish.
The list of players supporting that have done so is deep and has some star power.
Conversely, you don’t really need to look beyond former cornerback Kemah Siverand — who was cut by the Seattle Seahawks during the 2020 preseason for trying to sneak a woman into the team hotel in a violation of COVID protocols — to see what happens when you're not important enough to survive breaking the rules. The cost was his opportunity in Seattle.
Brown and Edwards? Both did something far, far worse in misrepresenting their vaccination status to the NFL. The price will ultimately be whatever doesn’t endanger the bigger picture for the Buccaneers. And make no mistake: This gives both the upper hand when it comes to the Buccaneers' needs for the remainder of 2021.
Arians needs Brown and Edwards to accomplish the goal of repeating as Super Bowl champion this season, as do general manager Jason Licht, quarterback Tom Brady and Buccaneers ownership. As good as Tampa Bay is, it can’t afford to lose an impactful defensive back and a star wide receiver who gives the offense an exponential advantage when all the skill position players are healthy. If that wasn’t true, neither Brown or Edwards would be on the roster today. They’d be waived just like Siverand was, with Tampa Bay presenting the move as a statement about truth and consequences.
Instead, the truth here is that the Buccaneers need both players. And the consequence is having to keep them around despite being made to look foolish.
And make no mistake, the Buccaneers have been made to look foolish. Not just because Arians raised the “100 precent vaccinated” flag when that might not have been the case. And not just because Brown and Edwards didn’t respect the organization enough to be honest about their COVID protections. No, the Buccaneers look foolish because the NFL told them to do their own homework on the vaccination cards of their players, and Tampa Bay somehow didn’t connect the dots that led to Brown and Edwards coming clean about what they’d done.
When the NFL took the time to actually pay attention to it, this wasn’t exactly the caper of the century. Not if two details reported by the Wall Street Journal are true: that Brown, Edwards and former wideout John Franklin III all passed on getting their vaccine from the team and instead went to the same drive-thru facility in Citrus County, Florida — a 90-minute drive from Tampa — at the same time but didn’t drive together, and that none of the three players had ties to Citrus County.
If it took little time for NFL investigators to realize that seemed fishy, there’s valid reason to wonder how closely the Buccaneers were looking at the locations of vaccinations outside of the team facility.
That the simple questions weren’t asked — and with additional reports now suggesting other NFL teams have caught players pulling vaccination card scams — leans into the most logical conclusion: league franchises wanted to meet their vaccination thresholds, and if players presented cards that appeared to be real, they weren’t going to complicate things by asking too many questions. Because the hole a team was digging here may have been beneath its own feet, especially in the cases of important players who were going to have a hand in accomplishing the loftiest of goals.
Brown and Edwards fit into that category. Sunday’s 30-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons notwithstanding, there’s no denying that Brady is at a greater advantage when Brown is healthy and on the field. There’s a reason Brady has been one of his biggest advocates. And there’s also a reason teams have their hands full when Brown walks onto the field alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Defenses have only so many defensive backs capable of matching up with that trio. A full deck of that threesome and a healthy Rob Gronkowski in the postseason would create mismatches on every given passing play. And if the pass protection holds up in a scenario like that, Tampa Bay’s opponents are going to have to score a lot of points to win games.
As for Edwards, Tampa Bay's defense is struggling to get back into the late-season pass-rushing groove of 2020. It also has gone through a wood-chipper of injuries in the secondary. The Buccaneers need as many healthy defensive backs as possible, and Edwards was a big part of last season’s Super Bowl run, including an interception of Drew Brees in the divisional playoff win and playing 100 percent of the defensive snaps in the NFC title game win over the Green Bay Packers.
Players like that tend to earn leniency. It's why we’ve seen Arians move off of seemingly past definitive statements. The guy who once suggested Brown wouldn’t have a place in Tampa Bay’s locker room eventually made an exception. So it's fair to assume the guy who told Peter King last year that if Brown “screws up one time, he’s gone” now must adjust for what Brown did for him on the field since he made that statement. And most especially what Brown did against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, when he caught a touchdown pass and spent the night occupying a significant amount of attention from the defense.
Brown knows this. Just like Edwards knows he also has an important role, too. Both will serve a three-week suspension for something that would have lost lower-rung players their roster spot. If that wasn’t the truth, there wouldn’t be any need to consider dragging out this embarrassment any longer than last week’s revelation.
But Tampa Bay will, because it’s in the best interest of winning another Super Bowl. And when all is said and done, that’s the shot in the arm that every NFL team will make sacrifices for. Even if it means looking like a fool.