Credit Al Michaels with the line of the night about Antonio Brown, when the NBC “Sunday Night Football” announcer said upon seeing Brown’s jet touch down in New England: “It’s a good thing he didn’t have to go through baggage claim, because he’s got a lot of baggage to claim.”
Michaels’s quip was inspired by the cross-country weight Brown was lugging from Oakland, where an abbreviated tenure with the Raiders was saddled with constant turmoil. But it carries even more resonance now, just days after Brown officially became a Patriot. Brown was accused in a lawsuit Tuesday of raping his former training partner.
We don’t know yet if Bill Belichick and the Patriots knew about the accusation when they plucked Brown off the open market a mere 15 minutes after he was available, but there’s no way the New England brain trust was unaware of Brown’s long and complicated history of questionable behavior. For all the attention paid to the most recent headlines Brown made in Oakland, feuding with his general manager and demanding his release only hours after publicly apologizing for being a distraction, Brown has been making news for all the wrong reasons for years now.
Even if Belichick and Co. are able to look past the me-first antics Brown pulled in Oakland, forgiving them as a deliberate Raider escape or a simple mismatch of player and team, they would be wise to remember Brown’s history with the Steelers as a guide to how (or if) they can integrate him into their Patriot Way. While a rape charge is certainly more serious than anything that has happened on the football field or in the locker room, it is the pattern of behavior that should alarm the Pats.
Remember, Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh, too, his March trade to the Raiders inevitable after the owner, coach, and quarterback he clashed with finally reached their limits. Forget the frozen feet and foolhardy helmet battles in Oakland; the fundamental nature of Brown’s self-above-team actions go back to his Pittsburgh days.
Not that Belichick was ready to concede as much early Tuesday (before the rape accusation was made public), chiding reporters who asked him about Brown by saying, “Same thing you said about Randy Moss when we brought him in.”
But Moss came of Patriot age in a pre-social-media era, and Brown’s public oversharing in Pittsburgh did him in. In many ways, the Steelers are a much more compatible franchise match to the Patriots than the Raiders, given how Pittsburgh and New England perceive themselves as above the dramatic fray, programs steeped in stability and tradition.
The Steelers, whose NFL history stretches back to 1933, have had only three head coaches since 1969, and while the Patriots are relative newcomers, Belichick is closing out his second decade at the helm. They are the twin leaders of the Super Bowl pack, tied at six titles apiece.
If the Steelers couldn’t find a way to make it work with Brown, that has to give the Patriots pause.
Pittsburgh couldn’t, and, given what Brown did, the Patriots wouldn’t have been able to, either. Habitually late to meetings, constantly posting to social media, publicly feuding with teammates, complaining about touches, missing walkthroughs, getting benched for a crucial late-season game . . . that won’t fly in New England.
That is why legendary Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw said on the “Tiki and Tierney” radio show Monday, “I do not see him surviving in New England. I don’t know him, but I personally don’t like him. I’ve done a couple of things with him, he’s always late. He’s disrespectful of authority.
“I’ve got some serious doubts about him. He’s a diva. He’s not the kind of person I would want to play with. You don’t win with ‘me’ and he’s a ‘me’ guy.”
Brown’s first public misstep in Pittsburgh was one of his worst. In January 2017, he defied both league and team policy by using Facebook Live to stream a postgame locker room celebration, revealing coach Mike Tomlin profanely calling out his next opponent (which just happened to be the Patriots in the AFC Championship game). Tomlin yelled, “We spotted those [expletives] a day and a half . . . We’ll be ready for their ass.”
Brown and Tomlin later apologized, and Brown was fined $10,000 by the team. But when other details emerged — that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had only recently asked Brown to tone down his social media exploits, that Facebook had been paying Brown hundreds of thousands of dollars for content — the apology rang hollow.
And it didn’t portend change, despite Tomlin telling the public at the time, “It was foolish of him to do that. It was selfish of him to do that. And it was inconsiderate of him to do that.”
The easiest marker in the demise of Brown’s relationship with the Steelers is what happened last December, when after a Week 16 loss at New Orleans (in which Brown torched the Saints for 185 yards on 14 catches), he had a midweek confrontation with Roethlisberger, left the facility, skipped a walkthrough, and ended up suspended for the season finale. He has said Tomlin told him to go home because he was nursing injuries, but the team disputed that account, marking Brown as unexcused.
There was plenty of belief that it was the continued emergence of fellow receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (11 catches, 115 yards vs. Saints, and later voted team MVP) that really rankled Brown.
The fallout ended with the decision to accommodate Brown’s trade request in March, but it was not an isolated incident.
In an exhaustive analysis of Brown’s Pittsburgh years published by ESPN in February, reporter Jeremy Fowler wrote “several [teammates] say Brown routinely showed up late to team meetings that set up the upcoming game week. If he was loosely on time, he might be the last one to walk through the door. One player went as far to say he didn’t see Brown once in the Wednesday morning meetings during his one season with the team.”
Belichick doesn’t do late, nor does he do star treatment, which, according to Fowler, Brown got during training camp by staying off site in a luxury Airbnb rather than dorm rooms.
Belichick also doesn’t do social media, routinely dismissing it with mangled names such as “MyFace” or “SnapFace.” But Brown uses it to an extreme and the results are rarely team-friendly.
Belichick was asked specifically about social media during a conference call with reporters Monday (the morning after his Brown-less team beat the Steelers, 33-3) and his interminable pause before answering made it clear he is not a fan.
But Brown is. Back in February, he did a Twitter Q&A with fans that led him to describe Roethlisberger, who had called out Brown for a mistake running a route, by saying, “He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone. It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth”
Brown later deleted the tweet, but the damage to that relationship was long done anyway. Imagine taking shots at Tom Brady that way?
Brown used Twitter to bid farewell to Pittsburgh fans while he was still on the roster. He did an Instagram live video, while on a treadmill, to repeat his demand for a trade. (And also to be called “Mr. Big Chest” instead of “AB.”) He has since established a personal YouTube channel to promote his own brand.
Does any of that fit the Belichick way?
As Josh Gordon confirmed after Sunday night’s game, it is different in New England.
“For me, initially it was a culture shock, it was definitely different,” he said of Belichick’s rules and structure. “I knew this is the way it was going to be. I could get with it or look for a transition somewhere else. It’s tough, but if this is what you want to do, then this is the best place to be.”
Will it be for Brown? As his former coach Jon Gruden said Monday night after the Brown-less Raiders beat Denver, “You know, we gave it a shot. Now New England gets their turn. Good luck to them. I can’t deal with it anymore.”
That’s more than reporters could get from Tomlin, who had no reaction to Brown’s newest team because, “We moved on from that stuff in March.”
Let the Patriots be warned. The baggage keeps piling up.