Forgiveness in the NFL is measured in yards and touchdowns, in victories and playoffs and championships. Can you help provide those? You are a changed man by the grace of football.
Antonio Brown can likely still help provide those, although neither he nor anybody else wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform did on Sunday night, as the Bucs were crushed by the New Orleans Saints, 38-3. Given how terrible the Bucs offense looked in the loss to another top-level team, one week after struggling against the New York Giants, it certainly looks like the Bucs need Brown to provide whatever he can for as long as he can.
How long that will be is, of course, the question looming over the biggest shotgun marriage of the season.
The Bucs are Browns’ fourth team in 20 months, which is a testament as much to his ability as to his instability. This was Brown’s first time on the field in more than a year, when he spent one game with the New England Patriots, quickly seeding a relationship with Tom Brady that the Bucs hope will bear fruit this season, without also sprouting headaches.
That Brown made almost no impact on the game should not be a surprise. Brady was under unrelenting duress from the Saints’ pass rush, the receivers were blanketed by defenders, and the Bucs were out of whack from the very start. Brady’s third interception of the night – a duck heaved into the middle of the field under pressure – was simply one of the worst passes Brady has ever thrown. This was Brady’s first regular season game with at least three interceptions since a week three loss to Buffalo in 2011, according to NFL Research. Even if Brown had been up to speed, he couldn’t have helped that.
“When you’re down 28, you’re not running the ball, the pressure is coming,” said coach Bruce Arians of Brady’s poor showing. “Still no excuse for interceptions, but he was getting hit. It’s definitely not on him.”
Arians called the loss “shocking.”
Brown was such a non-factor in his first game that he did not do a post-game interview and neither Arians nor Brady were asked about him. It seemed clear a few times during the game that Brown might have not been where Brady expected him to be, an indication Brown is not yet entirely familiar with the playbook. Given the whipping the Bucs – heretofore thought to be the NFC’s best team – endured, it seems fitting that Brown’s most visible contribution was slamming into Saints safety Marcus Williams after Brown appeared to run the wrong route and Brady’s pass intended for him sailed in Williams’ hands for Brady’s second interception of the game. The first interception also came on a pass intended for Brown. Brown finished with three catches on five targets for 31 yards.
That does not mean that Brady’s attention to Brown is going to lead the Bucs down the path to certain ruin. It does mean that that brief glimpse of chemistry in Patriots uniforms, and the news that Brown is bunking at Brady’s Tampa home, does not ensure instant success. But the answer to the question about whether the Bucs need Brown and the potential problems that often accompany him in the first place came early in the second half, when receiver Mike Evans was hurt (he later returned). Evans and Chris Godwin – who was wearing a splint on his left hand because he recently had surgery on his index finger – have struggled to remain healthy and on the field in the first half of the season. Being able to slip a former All-Pro into one of those vacancies is the kind of depth any coach and quarterback of a Super Bowl contender prays for. When Brown reached up to snatch a ball from the air in the third quarter, it was a brief glimpse into what the Bucs hope they will get from him and what they obviously will need.
This is where it is important to remember why Brown was not quite up to speed. It was the first game for which Brown was eligible after serving an eight-game suspension for violations of the personal-conduct policy stemming from a no-contest plea in a case involving burglary and battery charges. And he still faces a civil suit springing from a sexual assault allegation. The NFL has held open the possibility that Brown could receive a further suspension, depending on what information surfaces in the course of the civil suit. The Bucs have said that if there is more trouble, Brown will be gone.
Brown said last week that he has been “getting away from anger” and thinks he is a better person. That sounds good, as much as it can be believed.
Perhaps Brown is a changed man. Who really knows. Everyone – but especially pro sports leagues that want to imagine they serve a higher purpose – likes a redemption story. That there was genuine concern for Brown’s mental health earlier this year at the highest levels of the league office was no secret and certainly makes you root for Brown’s recovery. Brown said Brady put him in touch with motivational speaker Tony Robbins to help him. Given that Robbins was just last year the subject of multiple accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct – accusations he denies – it is, at best, a curious pairing to put Brown on the right path.
Let’s be frank, though. For the Bucs’ purposes, it doesn’t really matter who is leading Brown down a path, as long as that path skirts trouble and doesn’t have any speedbumps. Brown is in the NFL because he would be fast-tracked to the Hall of Fame if he could just stay on the field and out of trouble. It is why Brady has gone out of his way to help him, why Arians – who made clear his personal distaste for Brown in the offseason – has accepted him on his team and why we all watch so closely the friendship Brown already has with Brady.
Brown’s return marks as good a time as any to finally stop thinking of sports as morality plays. Last year, when Brown joined the Patriots, fans at his lone game held signs celebrating his arrival. Brady sulked over his departure. Stop being shocked by either behavior. These are bottom line businesses and their practitioners and supporters have one primary goal. It is not to teach our children lessons about right and wrong.
Brown will probably help the Bucs win games once he settles in, which is why they are paying him. If football is the impetus for him to change his life, that would be a more important victory, of course. But make no mistake about which kind of win the Bucs were thinking about when they signed Brown and which one they are focused on for the rest of this season. After Sunday’s debacle, the Bucs’ prospects suddenly look murky. But how Brown’s success will be judged has never been clearer.