FOXBORO, Mass. — I would not describe Tom Brady as giddy, or overly bubbly, about the prospect of playing football with the great but troubled wide receiver he’ll meet today, Antonio Brown. When I met Brady for a few minutes in an office just off the Patriots locker room around 12:20 this morning, an hour after the Patriots finished a stunning 33-3 pasting of the surprising docile Steelers in the 2019 season-opening Sunday-nighter, I’d describe him as pleased that the Patriots went out on a limb and invested millions in Brown.
Pleased … but pleased in the way you get when you’ve finished raking a third of the yard. Hardly satisfied. Lots left to do.
“There was a lot of positive emotion when it happened,” Brady said, “but you know, everybody says, Whoa, this is what it can be, and what potential they have. But you know, the teams I’ve been on, they go to work.
“The NFL’s a competitive place. Lots of moving parts. Lots of adjustment, constantly. Week to week, a guy gets hurts, a guy gets picked up you don’t know, you’re constantly manipulating your team. We lost our right tackle [Marcus Cannon, with a shoulder injury] tonight for who knows how long. Like, oh sh–, that’s a big deal. Now we’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to … there’s a lot to learn. … The point is, it’s one thing to talk about, it’s another thing to go do it. Let’s go do it. That’s what my attitude is.”
Of course, that’s why this place works so well. The Patriots have won six Super Bowls in 18 years because Bill Belichick’s a dour metronome of preparation and utter consistency, and his GOAT disciple, Brady, plays the most important position at the same level of preparedness and attitude. So sometime before the Brown deal is announced today—it may have already happened—Belichick will tell Brown something like this: Welcome to the team. Great to have you. Follow the rules. Those who have heard the Belichick welcome say it’s not particularly long nor emotional. But there will be an understanding that if Brown continues to act like the petulant child he was in Oakland, he won’t last here, even if it means it’ll cost New England owner Robert Kraft millions to jettison him.
As Brady says, We’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to … there’s a lot to learn.
Left unspoken: We’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to be the same as everyone else here. A Team Guy.
“The expectations are high,” Brady said. “Coach always says, ‘I’m not going to congratulate you for doing your job. You’re not going to get a lot of pats on the back because you completed a pass. That’s why you’re here.’ And if you screw up, he’s gonna tell you. I mean, he knows so much football. He wants it done right. Josh [McDaniels, offensive coordinator] wants it done right. That’s what we’re gonna try to do now.”
I said: “Seems like it’s got a pretty good chance to work, based on your history here.”
“I hope so. I don’t think this team would make a decision like that if they doubt it’s going to work. We’re gonna work as hard as we can to make it work to contribute to what we’re trying to achieve.”
Today, the Patriots are expected to announce the signing of Brown, who they hope will buttress a team without a deep threat they can count on (Josh Gordon is one, but substance abuse has limited him to 18 games in the last four years) as they chase a record seventh Super Bowl title. We all know Brown’s issues. They bore us now. So now we wonder if Brown can put down his precious social tools and, as Gruden apparently pleaded to Brown in the infamous (and illegal) Friday night post: “Please stop this s— and just play football.”
The two closest players in the Belichick era to Brown—though neither were as downright disruptive pre-New England—were running back Corey Dillon, traded from Cincinnati in 2004, and wide receiver Randy Moss, acquired from the Raiders in 2007. Each had multiple prime years left. Moss had the best year of his life with the Pats in their 16-0 regular season in 2007, catching a league-record 23 touchdown passes.
The Moss story is vivid and so much like Brown’s. The draft was held over two days in 2007 (first three rounds on Saturday, last four rounds on Sunday), and Oakland owner Al Davis was trying to unload the 30-year-old Moss for a third-round pick. The Patriots said no, as did other potential trade targets, and when the draft ended, Davis said he’d take a four for Moss. That was okay with the Patriots, but Belichick wanted to speak with Moss first. So Moss flew overnight to Boston, and on Sunday morning met with Belichick and VP of personnel Scott Pioli. Moss was due $20.8 million over the last two years of his contract; Pioli said if he’d take a major pay cut (one year at $3 million, with $2 million in makeable incentives), they’d do the deal with Oakland.
“Bro, I don’t care what the deal is,” Moss told Pioli. “Just get it done.”
The Patriots traded the four to Oakland for Moss. “Same thing with Corey Dillon,” Pioli said. “Those guys should get credit for humbling themselves and taking a lot less money so they could try to win a Super Bowl.”
There’s another element—the most important one, the one Antonio Brown is about to experience. Another new receiver to the Patriots in 2007, Donte’ Stallworth, told me he and Moss were stunned in the first team meeting by Belichick’s equal-opportunity wrath-sharing.
“I was sitting next to Randy,” Stallworth said Sunday, “and Bill was showing some plays from the previous season. The Patriots blew a big lead and lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, and he was showing plays where the guys made some mistakes. He gets to Tom, and I remember Bill showing a short pass to a wide receiver that Tom threw really short. Just a bad pass. Bill says, ‘What the f— is this?’ And he says something like, I can get a kid from Foxboro High to make that throw!Randy and I looked at each other. He kinds of sits up real straight in his chair and we had this look like, Holy s—! Is this real?
“That day, we learned the truth about New England: If Tom Brady was getting it, no one was safe.”
So, I asked Stallworth: Is the guy so sensitive to every perceived slight, the guy who seems to trust no one, going to be okay getting called out if he runs an imprecise route—which, as has come out of Pittsburgh since his departure, Browns tends to do. Is Antonio Brown going to be able to take Belichick’s stuff?
“I really think he’ll be okay,” Stallworth said. “You’ve got to remember too that there’s something about playing with Brady. They’ll find things in common with each other. They’ve already got a connection, right? Both sixth-round picks with chips on their shoulders?”
Actually: Brady went to college in Michigan and was the 199th overall pick in 2000. Brown went to college in Michigan and was the 195th pick in 2010.
“I know people are talking about the money he lost,” Stallworth said. “Money’s great. But when you can be a Super Bowl contender, and when you can play for maybe the greatest coach ever in team sports, and you can play with the greatest quarterback maybe ever, I’ll just tell you, the way players think, that is something money can’t buy. That appeals to players.
“Antonio’s got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But when you get to New England, you have to accept being a cog in the wheel. I think if Antonio buys in, he’s going to have a great year. If he doesn’t, the experience will be over pretty quick.”