Of course this happened. After two days of pure, unadulterated joy for the Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were high from the schadenfreude of watching the Antonio Brown saga play out in Oakland, the situation has morphed into their worst nightmare. Hours after his release from the Raiders, Antonio Brown has reportedly signed with the New England Patriots, a move that echoes the 2007 trade that brought a mercurial Randy Moss from Oakland to New England and led to an 18-1 Patriots season. The wildest sports drama of the year has ended with the league’s biggest personality on the most famous football team in the world. Let’s break down what it means for the Patriots, Raiders, Steelers, and everyone else.
The New England Patriots Are a Superteam (If They Can Stay on the Field)
The Patriots have the strange distinction of being the reigning Super Bowl champions but also being boring. Not anymore. Brown to the Pats could be 2007 Moss to the Pats all over again, but instead of pairing their new receiver with Wes Welker and Donté Stallworth like a decade ago, Brown will play alongside Josh Gordon, whose closest NFL comparison is … Randy Moss. Whether Gordon—who was recently reinstated by the NFL after violating the league’s policy against substance misuse—and Brown will be able to stay on the field together remains to be seen, but this has the potential to be a historic pairing. Brown is coming off the most prolific six-year stretch for a receiver in NFL history. Gordon is the only wideout ever to post back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. Talentwise, it may be the greatest 1-2 receiver combination in NFL history. Rob Gronkowski has retired, but Julian Edelman, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, is the Patriots’ third receiver. To think that a month ago New England’s biggest question mark was at pass catcher.
Antonio Brown, Financially and Football-wise
Saturday was bad for Brown’s bank account, great for his football career, and is still to be determined for his legacy. Financially, there’s no question that this saga was a disaster for him. Brown demanded a trade from Pittsburgh this winter because the Steelers would not pay him more guaranteed money. Brown won that power struggle, got traded to the Raiders, and signed a deal that guaranteed him $30 million. But he couldn’t win in peace. Brown refused to show up to work while feuding with the Raiders and the league over his helmet, got fined for his absences, and then got fired for his response to those fines, which included threatening to punch general manager Mike Mayock. In New England, he’ll be guaranteed just $9 million on a one-year deal worth up to $15 million. Whether he can make up the $30 million remains to be seen.
This is great for his football career. Brown is still among the most talented and hardest-working players in football, and now he will go from playing with Derek Carr, Tyrell Williams, and one of the worst offensive lines in football to playing with Tom Brady, Josh Gordon, and one of the best offensive lines in football. After all of this, Brown may have landed in the best football situation of his entire career.
Grimace Emoji for Everyone Who Doesn’t Want the Patriots to Win the Super Bowl
This is horrible for every team that fancied themselves a contender, including the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and Los Angeles Rams. This is a nightmare for their fans, as well as anyone who does not want the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Besides the Patriots themselves, the only winners here are people who root for the Pats or bet on them to win the Super Bowl before this news broke.
While this is bad for 31 teams in the league, it’s good for the NFL’s business. Until now, only the NBA had been able to capture the attention of the entire country with a player switching teams. The player empowerment era, for better or worse, has seeped into football, and so has the public fascination.
The Raiders in 2019
Jon Gruden botched the Brown situation, but Oakland’s game against the Broncos on Monday may reveal he bungled the other 52 players on the roster too. With Brown officially out of the Raiders air attack, this offense is barely an improvement over last year’s squad that was the 25th-most efficient in the league per Football Outsiders. Left tackle Kolton Miller gave up the most sacks in the league last year and right tackle Trent Brown gave up the second-most quarterback hits, so quarterback Derek Carr will need to get the ball out of his hands quickly. When that happens, it’s unclear who will be open. The Raiders have a lot of players who specialize in deep-breaking routes, but not many who can get open immediately like Brown. Free-agent signing Tyrell Williams is now ostensibly the team’s no. 1 receiver but never had more than eight catches in a game as a deep threat in four years for the Chargers. Ditto for speedster J.J. Nelson, who had seven receptions in 14 games for the Cardinals last year. Tight end Darren Waller has played tight end for only three years and is not considered a refined route runner. Rookie receiver Hunter Renfrow has the skill set to get open quickly, but will likely be limited to a slot role and can’t create much after the catch. Last year, Derek Carr was heavily criticized for throwing the ball away often, and it might be more of the same this year without receiver Amari Cooper, the former no. 4 pick who lollygagged in Oakland but has looked elite ever since joining the Dallas Cowboys last year.
That’s bad considering the Raiders will need to pass early and often. They gave up the most points in football in 2018, largely because the defense had 13 sacks, just 0.5 more than Khalil Mack after the team traded him to the Bears. It was the fourth-fewest sacks for an NFL team since sacks became an official statistic nearly 40 years ago, and Clelin Ferrell, the defensive end drafted fourth overall by the Raiders this year, has not looked like he will add much to that total. Last year’s Raiders were 4-12 and finished with the no. 4 draft pick and it’s unclear how they’ll be significantly better in 2019.
The Raiders in 2020 and Beyond
The Raiders will move to Las Vegas next year and need a face of the franchise. So far that face has been Jon Gruden. That’s not a metaphor. The billboards in Las Vegas advertising the Raiders’ relocation show Gruden. It’s highly unusual for a sports team to advertise a coach, but it’s also unusual for a team to give a coach a 10-year, $100 million deal, which Raiders owner Mark Davis gave Gruden last year. Less than two years into that deal, Gruden’s reputation has taken a serious hit. He traded away former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and then complained about his team’s lack of pass rush, went 4-12, brought the Antonio Brown storm into the locker room, and then cut Brown after talking him up for months. The hope was that Gruden could bring Brown to even greater heights in Oakland and the league’s best receiver would be the star attraction of the Las Vegas Raiders—a weird and flashy guy for a weird and flashy city. So much for that. The Raiders will need to keep Gruden’s face on that billboard, and now that face has lost a lot of luster.
As much as Gruden’s reputation with the public has been hurt by this situation, it’s likely taken a far worse hit in his locker room. Gruden demands that players give all of themselves in practice, but he moved heaven and earth to accommodate a player who refused to practice at all. Brown threatened to punch Mayock on Thursday and the Raiders declined to suspend him so that he could play on Monday. Brown released a YouTube video that may have illegally used a private conversation with Gruden, and the coach reportedly said he thought it was “awesome.” Gruden’s message that no player is above the team will ring a bit hollow, and because so much of this has spilled into public view, it will ring that way for a long time. Gruden is unfireable until 2027, when the coastlines of the world are projected to be overrun by the sea.
The Integrity of Hard Knocks
HBO’s Hard Knocks, the reality show where we see the inner workings of a team preparing for the NFL season, often produces excellent moments. Antonio Cromartie forgetting all of his children’s names; Rex Ryan saying “Let’s go eat a goddamn snack”; Jeff Fisher saying he won’t tolerate “7-9 bullshit.”; and Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie’s bouncing gut are among the show’s most beloved moments. But the show has also become famous because it shows things you’d never ordinarily see, like Browns head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley butting heads in team meetings last year, receiver Corey Coleman emotionally demanding that Jackson trade him, or seeing players get released by the team. The only thing Hard Knocks showed us this year was how much censorship power teams apparently have over what HBO (which is an initial investor in The Ringer) can air. In one of the most dramatic sagas between a team and a player (that did not involve the law) ever, Hard Knocks showed a version where everything between Brown and Gruden was sunshine and rainbows. The two-minute YouTube video Brown posted on Friday night was better produced and gave more inside access to the Raiders than anything on Hard Knocks this year.
The Brown situation is a debacle for the show, which had the meatiest of meatballs pitched down the middle of the plate and promptly whiffed. It will also make teams even more wary of letting the show into their building, which owners are already reluctant to do, as coaches and executives likely understand how much of a headache Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock went through to ensure so little information got out.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
In the words of Stephen A. Smith, this move is an unmitigated catastrophe. The team had the chance to vanquish the Pats on Sunday Night Football and prove they are better off without Le’Veon Bell and Brown as a fifth of the country watches. Now Brown will be on the other sideline, and while he will not play, he will be in their nightmares the rest of the season. It’s akin to the serial killer in a slasher movie waking up after you fire all of your bullets into his chest.
This is an incredible plot twist after the Steelers looked like geniuses for getting rid of Brown. A mistake commentators, yours truly included, often make is looking at a surprising decision a team makes and not immediately wondering what information they have that we don’t. This is the case with the Pittsburgh Steelers and general manager Kevin Colbert. Colbert traded away Brown, whose 9,145 yards over the last six seasons is the most for any receiver in any six-year stretch in NFL history, in March for third- and fifth-round picks. It’s one fifth-round pick more than the Steelers got from the Raiders when they traded receiver Martavis Bryant to Oakland, who has barely been on the field due to suspensions, a year earlier. Not only did the Steelers not get a high pick for Brown, but they also ate a massive $21 million salary cap hit just to get rid of him. This, in retrospect, was the best move the Steelers have made in years. It is difficult to imagine how much more intense this story could have been if Brown had remained in Pittsburgh, where his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster was boiling over. The Steelers were a circus last year with Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. This would have been 10 times worse if they kept him. Now that he’s on the Patriots, though, it’s 100 times worse that they got rid of him.