When Antonio Brown mocked Mike Tomlin as the Pittsburgh Steelers coach was addressing the superstar wide receiver going AWOL, it should have been the seminal moment of his NFL career.
Through bizarre behavior that should have screamed for buyers to beware, Brown orchestrated a trade in March to Oakland only to be released by the Raiders on Saturday and sign a one-year contract worth $15 million with the New England Patriots on the eve of their season opener against the Steelers in Foxborough.
Stranger than fiction, right?
It’s actually a shame that Brown wasn’t eligible to play against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football at Gillette Stadium. What a sideshow that would have been, Brown catching passes from Tom Brady less than a year after his “trade-me” tweet.
Even James Harrison would’ve been jealous.
Nothing surprises me with Brown anymore, except for how quickly teams overlook the baggage he brings because of his tantalizing talent. And I don’t know whether Brown — more likely his agent, Drew Rosenhaus — is a calculating genius or simply the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum himself.
But Brown gets what he wants, even when he doesn’t.
Brown became a migraine for the Steelers, so we should have seen that a majestic meltdown was coming after he left Heinz Field at halftime of the season finale against Cincinnati with a playoff spot still on the line.
That was the ultimate show of selfishness, but it was only the start. Brown undermined Tomlin’s authority and questioned Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership with the Steelers, leaving a blaze of destruction in his wake.
The Steelers had no choice but to trade Brown, who reached the point where he was no longer worth the distractions and drama. In return for a four-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowl pick, they received third- and fifth-round draft picks but remain on the hook for $21.12 million in dead cap space.
The Raiders rewarded Brown with a new contract that included $30.1 million in guarantees, only to see his selfish side exposed before he ever played a game.
Brown has proved masterful at turning everything from his talents to his tantrums into endorsements — he even scored a helmet deal after threatening not to play without his outdated model — and blurring the line between being an endearing entertainer and a drama-filled distraction.
But Brown crossed the line.
So, the Raiders got what they deserved. They got a diva who missed the majority of training camp because of his frostbitten feet and his helmet controversy and anything else he could conspire. They got a malcontent who undermined the general manager, Mike Mayock, who traded for Brown and the coach, Jon Gruden, who publicly vouched for him and saved him from a season-opening suspension.
When the Raiders called his bluff by voiding his guaranteed money, Brown did what he does best: He turned to social media by unveiling a video of his conversation with Gruden, then requested a release that made him a free agent.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Brown gave fair warning in an interview with ESPN in March: “If they want me to play, they’re gonna play by my rules. If not, I don’t need to play.”
Try telling that to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Playing by Brown’s rules is a dangerous game. He remains capable of 100 catches and 1,200 yards every season, as he did when he led the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions last year. But he also answers to no one.
That the Patriots wanted him should be no surprise. They are the modern-day Raiders when it comes to taking on talented troublemakers, especially receivers like Randy Moss and Josh Gordon. More than anything else, the Patriots want to win. And they have six Super Bowl championships to show for it.
But Brown’s constant need for the social media spotlight and his me-first antics are the polar opposite of the way the Patriots do business under Belichick and Brady. Yet, somehow, the Patriots have a way of turning powerful personalities into team players, with retired tight end Rob Gronkowski a shining example.
Will Brown buy in, or will the Patriots be his next victim?
Stay tuned. We’re about to find out.
Matt Harrelson is the co-host of Good Morning Sandhills, Live at 5, The RO Sports Show and ROSS Racing.