The Bucs are 5-2. They played close to a perfect game in dismantling Green Bay last week, then went to Las Vegas on Sunday and put up 45 on the men of Gruden. The last two weeks the Bucs of 2020 look like the in-stride Patriots of 2007, the team that clobbered good teams every week on the way to 16-0. And now, well, now the Bucs are inviting the fox into the henhouse.
“What,” I asked Bucs coach Bruce Arians, “was the thought process on bringing in Antonio Brown?”
“Injuries,” Arians said. “I mean, we got two Pro Bowl receivers [Mike Evans, Chris Godwin]. We went to Chicago with none of them, really. They were hurt. And here’s a guy that’s a Pro Bowl type player . . . We’re on the hook for nothing in this deal. He screws up one time, he’s gone. I don’t think he will because he wants to play.”
All three of the Bucs’ key wideouts—Evans, Godwin and smurfy tough sprinter Scotty Miller—are playing hurt. Arians asked all of them before Sunday’s game, “What percent are you physically—what do you think, 90, 95 percent?” Arians said Evans (ankle) said 80, Godwin (hamstring) said 80, and Miller (hip) said 85.
“They’re hurting,” Arians said, “they’re playing, but they’re nowhere near full speed. I think we can get better and better.”
More about the risk in signing Brown later in the column—I’ve seen this movie too often to think Antonio Brown is a smart signing by anyone—but in talking to Arians, he insisted on three things: It wasn’t Tom Brady’s call, his players are on board with it, and he will not allow Brown to derail the good things the Bucs have going.
Signing Brown could be a seminal moment for this franchise. It’s a classic deal with the devil. Women will be furious (many already are, and they should be) because of the abuse allegations Brown is currently fighting. The Bucs have this harmonious thing going on—you haven’t heard one skill player complain about not getting the ball enough, and Brown is a player who historically has demanded the football. (Rightfully so, really. He’s a great player.) And Brady fell for the guy in limited exposure to him last year in New England. So there are a lot of competing egos at work here, and all these high draft picks with great football résumés had better be okay with throwing their stats out the window, Brown included, if this thing is going to work.
“Mike never bitches,” Arians said. “I love Mike. Today he didn’t touch the ball till the fourth quarter, but he just wants to win. Chris Godwin, same way. Gronk, same way. If AB’s not that way, then we’re going to have a problem.”
Now a riff from Arians:
“I know everybody wants to say Tom Brady lobbied us to get this done. Tom Brady lobbied me back in, gosh, June, July, August. I said no. It didn’t fit then. Now, we’re in the hunt. I owe it to the rest of my players—if there’s a guy that fits our salary cap cheap, who’s a Pro Bowl-type player, let’s bring him on our squad. Who says he has to start? I mean, we just got another Pro Bowl player to put in if one of those guys go down. AB brings another dynamic to our team that we don’t have. I owe it to the rest of our players to put the best team out there possible. I don’t foresee any problems. I don’t anticipate any situation where he and I are gonna have a problem. He knows that if there is, it’s a very short-lived contract.
“Offensively we’ve been struggling all year with injuries. I wanna be able to make that playoff push with whoever’s available. Kinda the same thing we did with [veteran center] A.Q. Shipley. We brought him in just in case. So, we got a dominant center sitting on the bench. This team’s too good not to make that run and give our guys, our locker room, every chance. This move wasn’t made without me talking to every single one of our veteran players. Do you want this guy? Do you want this guy in our locker room? Every man said yes.”
Let’s spitball a minute. The Bucs are at the 1-6 Giants next Monday. A win there, and Tampa is 6-2 at the midpoint with a huge scheduling dichotomy in the second half: A killer quadrant of games (New Orleans, at Carolina, Rams, Kansas City), then the bye, then a soft last quadrant (Minnesota, at Atlanta, at Detroit, Atlanta). Brown is slated to be eligible to practice before the Saints game. So a cynical fan would say, If he implodes, at least he might be able to contribute in the brutal part of their schedule.
But if this blows up and hurts the team, the Bucs have to own it. No matter how tempting the shiny object is, Arians and the franchise are tempting fate. Arians and Brown need to have a crystal-clear understanding, with no blurred lines. If Brown so much as jaywalks, the experiment is over. There’s no other way to do this.