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Antonio Brown is gone, but did he take Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl hopes with him?

John Romano | The Bucs didn’t just lose a talented receiver, they gained a potential distraction weeks before the playoffs.
Antonio Brown talks with Bucs coach Bruce Arians during happier times at a practice in 2020. Arians and Brown have a relationship going back to their days with the Pittsburgh Steelers a decade ago.
Antonio Brown talks with Bucs coach Bruce Arians during happier times at a practice in 2020. Arians and Brown have a relationship going back to their days with the Pittsburgh Steelers a decade ago. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 8

TAMPA — Pick a side. Choose your protagonist. Either you believe Antonio Brown when he says the Bucs did him wrong, or you believe Bruce Arians when he says AB behaved like a petulant child.

Just so you know, there is no foolproof answer. Brown has a well-earned reputation for self-infatuation and Arians did himself no favors by sidestepping and parsing his answers to a week’s worth of questions.

But tweets, message boards and newspapers will not be the ultimate arbiters of this unfortunate mess. Instead, it will be remembered depending on the response of four dozen guys in Buccaneer uniforms.

In other words, it doesn’t matter who you believe.

It only matters who they believe.

Related: Bucs release disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown

Arians seemed to understand that intuitively, if not shrewdly. That’s one of the reasons the coach gathered his team on the field after practice on Thursday to inform them Brown had been released.

It was mostly courtesy to let them hear the news from the source, but it also was a chance for the coach to fit this portrait into a frame of his choosing.

You, he told his players, were all there in the locker room during halftime. You saw and heard Brown’s complaints about not getting enough passes thrown his way, he continued, and you know what this was all about. AB may be gone, he said, but we’re still here and the goal has not changed.

Will this version of events matter? Is it possible that Brown’s departure can be repurposed into something constructive for the Bucs? Was there a rallying cry to be found on the other side of the most infamous hop, skip and a jumping jack through an NFL end zone?

Beats me.

Antonio Brown won't physically be part of this season's playoff run for the Bucs. But will he be a distraction for the team?
Antonio Brown won't physically be part of this season's playoff run for the Bucs. But will he be a distraction for the team? [ ADAM HUNGER | Associated Press ]

You can probably assume that Brown’s departure from the lineup will make Tampa Bay a less-imposing offense. The team’s winning percentage during the regular and postseason with Brown on the field is .833 the past two seasons and .667 without him.

You can also assume that, for some in the locker room, Brown’s depiction of the Bucs as part of a league that chews up and spits out players when they are no longer needed had a gospel-like truth to it.

The reality is, no one came out of this fiasco looking better. For all his accusations and woe-is-me narrative, Brown turned out to be exactly who he was in Pittsburgh, Oakland and New England: A ridiculously talented player destined to wear out his welcome because of his unbelievable narcissism.

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Yet, as low as the bar is set in all matters involving Brown, the Bucs still managed to crawl under it. They did everything they could to keep the news of his fake vaccination card hidden. Then they enabled his worst tendencies by accepting the NFL’s wrist slap of a penalty, while not even publicly shaming Brown for his betrayal of their faith.

Related: Antonio Brown says Bucs promoted ‘false narrative’ that he quit the team

In the end, that’s likely what set Arians off on that sideline in New Jersey. Against his better judgment, he had stuck his neck out to appease Tom Brady and sign Brown in 2020. Then he swallowed his pride and took all of the criticism for ignoring the team’s zero-tolerance policy when it came to bringing Brown back after his three-game suspension.

And Brown’s response to all of that?

He wanted the team to guarantee the $2 million in contract incentives that were in jeopardy because of injuries and the suspension, then he acted out in the locker room at halftime of the Jets game because Brady was not throwing enough passes to him.

At least, that’s the team’s version of events.

Brown would have you believe he played valiantly on a ruined ankle, even though he seemed fine during the first half of the game and showed no signs of favoring an injury while later sashaying off the field. He also claimed Arians, 69, made a throat-slashing gesture while telling him he was done.

Does that sound credible? Not to me, but you’re free to believe whichever version rings true.

Antonio Brown throws his gloves into the stands, while the Bucs were on offense against the Jets, last Sunday.
Antonio Brown throws his gloves into the stands, while the Bucs were on offense against the Jets, last Sunday. [ ANDREW MILLS | NJ Advance Media ]

The thing to remember is that the meltdown in New Jersey was not an isolated incident. It just happened to occur in such spectacularly public fashion that it couldn’t be ignored.

Brown has courted trouble as far back as his freshman days in college when he was kicked out of Florida International University — he says unfairly — following an on-campus incident with security.

The avalanche of lawsuits, spats and suspensions that have followed either indicate Brown is the most misunderstood person on the planet, or he has serious impulse control issues.

He was accused of sexual assault. He was accused of sending misogynist and intimidating text messages to a woman. He was accused of throwing furniture out the window of a 14th-floor apartment and narrowly missing a toddler in the swimming pool area. He was accused of confronting a delivery driver and later pleaded no contest to felony battery with burglary.

And that’s just a partial list of incidents.

The point is not to rehash his outbursts, but to question the credibility of someone who is constantly blaming others for his problems. It doesn’t mean he is not telling the truth this time, but it does make it more difficult to afford him the benefit of the doubt.

Surely, the majority of players in the Bucs locker room understand that.

Whether they rally behind their coach — or use Brown’s departure as an excuse for falling short — is something we’ll discover in the coming weeks.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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