This is going to be a special edition of the Chief Thoughts where I only address the New England Patriots signing wide receiver Antonio Brown. I will do a more thorough article on Week 1 later in the week.
I want to address the ethical aspects of this first and then we will address the football side of the argument. Look, we can all sit here and moralize about the nature of the NFL but at the end of the day no one gives a crap as long as you win. People praised the Kansas City Chiefs for holding Kareem Hunt accountable for his actions and looked the other way when they signed not one, but two, alleged domestic abusers to massive contracts.
I’m not going to defend Antonio Brown, but I am happy to contextualize him. He did throw furniture off a balcony, which was negligent, but outside of that incident his behavior has merely been narcissistic.People who say Belichick is being a hypocrite do not understand him: he does not draft character guys because he wants to be a moral leader — he drafts them because he thinks it helps win championships. And the advantage of drafting for character is that it means you can also gamble on incredible talents without risking your locker room. Anyone who says signing Brown is a betrayal of Belichick’s mandate is a fool. Bellichick’s only mandate is what is best for the team.
Let people in the media foul. Let them scream and condemn. Let them rain holier than thou fury on the Patriots. Everyone is going to treat them as snakes. Every franchise is going to moan. Let them. Let the hypocrites cry. There is not a single franchise that would have done a damn thing different. You honestly expect me to sit here and feel bad about signing a narcissist for undermining his “team” and the “spirit of the game”? Terrell Owens was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year despite his reputation as a “locker room cancer.”
There is a reason the league has said they have no intention of investigating Brown leaving Oakland and joining the Patriots shortly after. Because the second they do, the mirror is going to be turned right back on them. It’s far easier to for them to sit quiet and let the media paint the Patriots as villains. It’s what everyone wants to believe anyways.
And you know what? I freaking love it. In the immortals words of Rodney Harrison, “I effing embrace it.”
Okay. With that out of the way, let’s address the football side of this.
I was in the camp that thought the odds of the Patriots signing Antonio Brown were next to none. To be clear, that is distinct from the camp that did not want to sign Antonio Brown. I wanted the Patriots to sign him but I did not think they would.
The reason for wanting to sign him is simple. I have maintained for the the last four years that Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the NFL when only considering the field. If you want to believe Julio Jones is better that’s fine. It’s a reasonable debate. But my response to the claim that Julio Jones can do everything that Brown can do only faster and stronger is a simple one: scoreboard. Brown has been the most productive wide receiver in the NFL over the last four years, measurables be damned. But whether he is the best wide receiver or second best is splitting hairs. The point is that Antonio is a Hall of Fame talent, who unlike Rob Gronkowski last season, appears to still be producing at an elite level. Why is Antonio Brown a Hall of Fame talent? Let’s count the ways.
- He is the most explosive receiver in the NFL off the line of scrimmage. Does he push off nearly every single play? Yes. Does it matter? No, because he does it in a way that it is almost never called.
- He is the best route runner in the NFL. He has quite literally run complex routes blindfolded with only the slightest deviation from where he ran them with his eyes open.
- He plays aggressive and battles for contested catches. You know those catches Brandin Cooks almost made but failed to ultimately reel in? Antonio Brown makes those catches.
- He is a monster after the catch with superior vision and feel for space.
- He has velvet hands and spectacular body control. This is a guy whose nickname, one of many, is Tony Toe Tap.
- You can use him in the short passing game, you can use him in the intermediate passing game, and you can use him deep. People say he is a deep ball specialist that Tom Brady cannot maximize? Bull. He is an every-level-of-the-field expert who can produce in any role. He can play on the inside and the outside. He can return punts. Brown can do everything and most importantly he can do almost all of it at an elite level.
I said before the Patriots signed Brown that even though I did not think he would sign with them, I would support Belichick if he did because he is just that good. The chances of the Patriots replicating Brady-to-Moss are very low but Brady-to-Brown is still going to be a fantastically productive connection. Brady depends on people being where they are supposed to be. Brown can run routes blindfolded and still arrives where he is supposed to go. The math here is not complicated.
Those are all the reasons I wanted the Patriots to sign Brown. Why did I not think they would?
I did not think they would for all the reasons why the Raiders released him. Brown has come across weird for months. The Raiders simply did not believe they would get a Hall of Fame talent onto the football field. And the truth is that there is absolutely zero guarantee that the Patriots will either. New England has a great track record with talented malcontents. They have the greatest coach who has ever lived. They have the greatest quarterback who has ever lived. They have the best system and locker room in football. But if Antonio Brown is not ready mentally absolutely none of that is going to matter. If anyone can get him to produce it is the Patriots, but there is no guarantee they will get him to produce. I also did not think Brown would want to play here. This a me-first guy going to a team-first franchise. I did not think he would be willing to commit to that type of austere lifestyle, even in theory.
So why did Belichick sign Brown in spite of that serious risk? Like any major decision it was based on an advanced cost-benefit-analysis. Let’s start at the beginning, after the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory. The Patriots’ late-season adaptation into a power run team is one of the reasons they are reigning world champions right now but it would be naive to think they could go into this year without changing. The Patriots had the best offensive line in football during the playoffs and capturing that lightning twice is improbable.
The Patriots knew their tight end room was going to be weaker. Part of the reason the team was so successful running is that it caught teams off guard by morphing the offense late in the season. It also played teams that were weak against the run. The running game is generally less efficient than the passing game; it’s much easier for an opposing team to adapt to a good running game than it is for teams to adapt to a good passing game. That reality is woven into the fabric of the NFL rules. Even against one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL, Brady still had to pass his team to victory in overtime. I think it was apparent to Belichick that this team needed to upgrade its passing attack in order to succeed in 2019.
But how do you do that? Free agency had no options. Josh Gordon’s reinstatement was completely out of your control. You have zero idea who is going to be available in the draft, and even if you get who you want, you have no idea what happens after that. Hell, that is exactly what happened. The Patriots reportedly got the top receiver on the board and he is starting the season on injured reserve. Even when it works out perfect, it doesn’t.
That’s why the report that Belichick was willing to give up a first-round pick for Brown is believable. He gave up a first for Brandin Cooks, after all. Cooks was a lesser talent but on a rookie contract. Brown is a Hall of Fame talent but cost more against the cap. Belichick has never been afraid to pay elite players, though. He’s just never been willing to overpay good players.
Antonio Brown’s off-the-field issues were not that much worse than what Belichick had gambled on in the past. Whether or not a first was offered, and frankly I’m not sure I buy it, I do believe the Patriots were willing to make the gamble on Brown earlier this year. Of course, the Steelers refused to deal Brown to the Patriots anyway, for obvious reasons, and instead shipped him to the Raiders. His behavior grew significantly worse, bordering on mentally unstable, and he was released to unrestricted free agency.
The question then became how did the calculus change between now and then? On the cost side, Brown’s temperament and actions had grown significantly worse. On the positive side, though, it cost the team zero draft capital and only required guaranteed money for a single season. Yes, the Patriots got Josh Gordon back but they also lost N’Keal Harry to IR. Belichick looked at the math and decided that $9 million in guarantees was worth the risk.
I agree with his calculus. The only thing the Patriots are risking is those guarantees that they could have spent on another player and the possible damage from him being a distraction if he implodes. I don’t think that matters very much. The chances of there being an impact player to spend that money on is slim to none this late in the year. To put it succinctly; Brown’s cap hit is very unlikely to come at the expense of New England filling or upgrading anywhere else on the roster. Even if those slim odds came through, would any other play provide as big of a potential boost to the team as Brown does? Yeah, I’d probably prefer Trent Williams right now but he’s sitting on his couch. Brown is right here.
I also see very little risk for the team. The Patriots have the best coach and the best quarterback and the best locker room. They moved past Gordon’s suspension and won a Super Bowl. I do not think Brown, even if he implodes, will inhibit this team very much. Belichick does not care. He just watched his defense hold the Steelers to a field goal and watched his offense make fools out of a very good defense. If at any point he feels Brown hurts the team more than he helps he will cut bait with him. It’s that simple.
Since the costs are minimal let’s look at the benefit. At minimum you buy first-class insurance for your passing attack if injuries become severe throughout the season. If things go well you have an offense that could break record books and compete blow-for-blow with Kansas City’s. As said above, if anyone can get the best out of Brown it is the New England Patriots.
I honestly have no idea if this works out. It’s hard to believe a guy that belligerent and self-centered can survive in Belichick’s locker room — it’s a lot to expect. Going from who he has been to what the Patriots will ask him to to be? It will be one of the biggest 180s in sports history.
But I think that regardless of the outcome it was the right move. Why? Because the process is right. This is exactly like the Josh Gordon situation. Even if the Patriots come up with snake eyes it was the right gamble because the impact calculus is so clearly one-sided from an on-the-field perspective. It’s really no different than playing poker. Just because you don’t get the result you want, doesn’t mean you made the wrong move.
The Patriots cannot lose.