In the locker room when one of the most dramatic games of this or any NFL season had ended, Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians told his players—all except the most famous former one, Antonio Brown—how proud he was of them.
“You’re either with us or against us,” Arians said after the Bucs outscored the Jets 18-0 in the last 17 minutes Sunday to beat New York 28-24. “And I want you to know I’ll take the guys in this locker room and go play anyone in the world.”
Arians took a big gamble with Brown last year, and he made a significant contribution to a Super Bowl win. Arians took a bigger gamble this year after Brown used a phony vaccination card, got suspended for three games by the league, and the Bucs allowed him to stay on the team post-ban. That was even after Arians said Brown would be gone if he made one mistake.
Now there’s no turning back for either man. It’d be stunning if Brown, barring a major turnaround in his life, got another chance in the league after blowing this golden one and his previous three with the Steelers, Raiders and Patriots. And Arians will be forever known as the man who drew his line in the sand, then changed his mind on Brown, and got burned by Sunday’s insubordination.
“It’s a shame,” said Arians. “I feel bad for him. He just can’t help himself.”
Brown may need professional help, but it’s impossible to project that from the outside. What he did Sunday was irrational and almost scary.
This is what happened on a strange afternoon in New Jersey:
With about 3:30 left in the third quarter, the Bucs driving and the Jets leading 24-10, Arians said he asked Brown to go back in the game. According to Arians, Brown said, “Nope. I’m not going in.” The Athletic reported Brown’s ankle was sore, and that’s the reason why he wouldn’t go in. Whatever the reason, Arians told me he was “very” angry with Brown, who went to the bench area and began taking off his jersey and pads. At first, vet receiver Mike Evans tried to stop Brown, but, according to Arians, “he had that look in his eye that I haven’t seen for a long time.” Evans couldn’t stop Brown, who took his jersey, pads and black T-shirt off, tossing the shirt into the stands. He left the field, giving the peace sign to fans as he went up the end zone tunnel.
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Meanwhile, Brady marched the undermanned Bucs receivers downfield, and two minutes later finished a TD drive with a four-yard pass to Cam Brate. When I asked Arians what Brady thought of the scene, he said, “I don’t think Tom knew. I knew and Mike Evans knew, but if anyone else did, I don’t know that. We kept playing the game.”
Brady led a 93-yard drive in the closing minute and threw a perfect 33-yard scoring pass to the inexperienced Cyril Grayson, who will probably be taking some of Brown’s playing time now. That won the game with 15 seconds left. Fifteen seconds is how long Tampa led the spunky Jets on this strange day.
“It’s all a credit to Tom,” Arians said. “Give the Jets credit. They played their asses off, but Tom never blinked. He’s the MVP of this league.”
Arians said the team, post-game, was excited, and he loves the young receivers that remain. But prime wideout Chris Godwin, out for the year with a knee injury, and now Brown, are two of Brady’s favorites—and maybe THE favorites. Without them, look for Brady to work long hours with Grayson, Jaelon Darden and Tyler Johnson to be sure they’re ready when the postseason begins.
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For now, Brady sounded loyal to Brown, and urged those who might demonize him not to rush to judgment. “I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things that are happening,” Brady said, not being specific.
“I hope he can get fixed,” said Arians.