Two weeks ago, Bruce Arians came the closest to defining the NFL’s why when it came to renewing opportunities for Antonio Brown. The wideout was coming off suspension for a vaccine card fiasco that was nothing short of an embarrassment for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their head coach, putting Arians in the position of implying a farcical notion that he might cut Brown loose for lying.
Predictably, Arians didn’t. And in the face of questions, he made two important declarations: He “didn’t give a sh**” about critics who questioned the decision; and his compass pointed toward keeping Brown because it was “best for our football team.”
This scored high marks for honesty, particularly because it was an on-the-record representation of the fine print that often underwrites questionable judgement calls in the NFL. It's a league where many in power search for the morally adaptable version of “Just win, baby," embracing it as a guiding light through the darkness. History has shown us there is also a flip side to that doctrine, with instances where that light is your house on fire. And you don’t realize it until it’s too late.
Other coaches and general managers have followed that light with Antonio Brown. Other teammates, front offices, lawyers, agents and even union executives. The justifications for each partnership may have varied, but the end result was the same regrettable combustion. Now Arians and Tom Brady are in the middle of it, on the doorstep of the playoffs and needing Brown more than any other moment, only to have their union go up in flames Sunday afternoon.
Not that the Buccaneers didn’t get what they wanted. The ends had already justified the means one year ago, when Brown helped Arians and Brady win another Super Bowl. This season was the result of greed — staying intertwined just a little bit longer, even through the vaccination embarrassment, and hoping that the seams wouldn’t come apart before mid February
What we saw Sunday, with Brown pulling off every piece of clothing and equipment above the waist during a game, doing jumping jacks through an end zone, throwing up a peace sign and quitting on a team in front of a packed stadium and television audience — that is the moment when the guiding light of winning at all costs was consumed in fire. And it illuminated the enabling that has surrounded Brown for years.
It came in the form of a bubble of protection that Brady created, effectively getting Brown back into the NFL, then framing the wide receiver’s considerably robust history of troubling incidents through a lens of mental health. There was also Arians' erasing and redrawing of uncrossable lines while the head coach massaged his one-strike policy for Brown into something with additional grace. Those new rules were explained last week to NBC’s Peter King:
“When you and I talked last year, we were talking on old experiences with Antonio,” Arians told King. “When he came back to us, he was a model citizen. There was a new history. I really loved the way he tried to fit in, worked his way in and gave us everything he had to go to the Super Bowl. My whole attitude on him changed. I saw him trying to be a better human being. So I’ve got a totally different relationship than when it was when you and I talked last year.”
One week later, Arians was stepping to a microphone in a far less expansive mood, telling reporters: “He is no longer a Buc. All right? That’s the end of the story.”
Meanwhile, Brady continued to explain Brown’s behavior in the realm of mental health, which is becoming a seemingly negotiable hall pass when it comes to Brown’s responsibility for incidents big and small.
“I think everybody should hopefully do what they can to help him in ways that he really needs it,” Brady said. “We all love him. We care about him deeply. We wanna see him be his best, and unfortunately, he won’t be with our team. … I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic towards some very difficult things that are happening.”
Nobody wants to see Arians and Brady as enablers. Or accept that maybe a large part of how they handled Brown was tied to his ability as a football player, even though Arians essentially admitted it, and Brady lobbied for this entire marriage to exist in the first place.
But Brown didn’t just suddenly step out of character Sunday. This wasn’t an impossible to comprehend one-off situation. That's saying something because there is no history for NFL players simply stripping off half their equipment and clothes, and quitting in the middle of a game before a national audience. Let alone just one week before the playoffs, for a team that has a shot to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Yet Brown did it, adding another chapter to a three-year parade of behavior that has ranged from felonious to childish and everything in between. Most of this occurred before he arrived in Tampa but much of it lines up perfectly with his vaccination fiasco, Sunday’s on-field implosion and Brown’s incessant need to suggest it’s someone else who is creating all the drama and problems.
That latter part is important because it leans back into Arians and Brady. If the head coach and quarterback are constantly caping for Brown, talking about what a great teammate he is and how he is creating “new history,” then maybe it’s understandable when he acts like a person who doesn't have to change. That’s the enabling. And it has always come back to haunt those who have engaged in it.
Arians and Brady are the latest in line. But the moment comes after they already accomplished what they needed to justify their investment. Now that Antonio Brown has done the most Antonio Brown thing we’ve ever seen, the need to expend him has arrived.
As Arians might say, it’s still about what’s best for the team. Just like it has always been. And he doesn’t give a sh** what you think about it.