Whatever you think about whether Antonio Brown should already be back playing on an NFL field, the four-time All-Pro wide receiver will be suiting up for the Buccaneers in 2020. Brown will make his debut in Tampa Bay’s critical Week 9 home division game against New Orleans.
The Bucs took a flyer on Brown, the former Steeler, Raider and Patriot as they go all in trying to get to the Super Bowl in their first season with Tom Brady as their starting quarterback.
There were two clear reasons for the signing. First, the Bucs have seen their top three wide receivers, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, battle through various injuries. Second, their decision to add an extra potential big playmaker also kept Brown away from the top NFC competition — such as the Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Eagles.
That’s the straight-up football logic related the move. But given the Raiders and the Patriots also added Brown thinking he would be a difference-maker last season, there is considerable risk with the possible high reward. The Bucs are counting on Brown not disrupting their strong locker-room chemistry under Brady’s leadership and staying out of more trouble off the field.
So far, Brown, Brady and head coach Bruce Arians are saying the right things leading up to Brown’s Bucs debut. While the honeymoon periods with the Raiders and Patriots ended in bitter, unique divorces, the Bucs have confidence there will be at least a fruitful marriage through the rest of the 2020 season.
So why will Tampa Bay be different from Oakland and New England in 2019? Here’s why Brown’s third chance after the Steelers won’t be another strikeout:
Antonio Brown is ‘extremely grateful’ for the opportunity
There’s no doubt Brown, 32, was humbled by being forced out of the game he loves while still capable of performing at a high level. Brown has gotten needed time to reflect on what went wrong since he left Pittsburgh.
Brown told reporters on Wednesday that he used his year and a half away from the NFL to “reevaluate himself” and is motivated to prove to his new teammates and coaches that he’s changed the behavior that caused the breakup with the Steelers.
When he picked the Bucs, the biggest reason might have been Brady.,with whom he meshed well when both were Patriots. But it’s also telling Brown was OK joining a team that already had two top wide receivers in Evans and Godwin, where he could settle into a complementary role and the pressure isn’t on him to go back to delivering as a dominant No. 1.
To Brown’s credit, there has been little noise from him since the NFL handed down its eight-game suspension for his violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Brown shouldn’t be confused with Justin Blackmon or Josh Gordon. He has a significant history of Hall of Fame-caliber play to think he can fall in line with a winning franchise again with the right support around him.
Antonio Brown has a very familiar coaching staff
Brown and Brady have a good bond, but beyond that the Bucs could feel confident knowing they also have five guys who know Brown from his Steelers playing days. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and offensive assistant Antwaan Randle El were his teammates at one point, as was outside linebackers coach Larry Foote. Both Arians and his assistant head coach, Harold Goodwin, worked under Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh early in Brown’s career.
Brown broke out as a wide receiver in his second season, overlapping with Arians’ final season as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Even though those it’s been a while since those football relationships where in place, there is an established good understanding of Brown’s talent and mind-set, peers and coaches alike.
Things went south for Brown with the Steelers when he could no longer be managed well by Tomlin and a rift developed between him and Ben Roethlisberger. Between Brady and plenty of experience of men being groomed under Tomlin, the QB connection is better and the coaching is similiar.
It might have worked out with Bill Belichick, but then again it might not have with The Patriot Way in place, despite Brady’s presence. It didn’t work with the Raiders, even though Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock did their best to be patient with Brown. Tampa Bay has enough in place to think an older Brown can find the younger Brown.
Antonio Brown isn’t just a fast friend of Tom Brady
As a quarterback who’s always demanding of his supporting cast to run the right routes, hold on to the ball and make the necessary block, one would think Brady would still be frustrated with Brown after the letdown with the Patriots. But Brady appreciates smart, hard-working players with elite skills, a profile Brown fits.
Evans is a very dangerous receiver who can stretch the field and use his massive catch radius in the red zone, but he hasn’t been a consistent big-play threat for Brady, partly because of injury. It’s no coincidence that Brady has been locked in most throwing the ball when the technically sound Godwin has been healthy. Miller has flashed well his speed and quickness downfield, but he is still limited in tougher matchups.
Brown gives Brady the best elements of all three receivers with veteran savvy. He can trust Brown to be in the right places at the right times in key situations. Brown will see limited snaps at first as he gets down the playbook, but he should end up being the ideal outside complement to Evans, allowing Godwin to go back to dominating the slot as the Bucs likely pivot back to Arians’ ideal 11 personnel (three wide receivers), given he’s down O.J. Howard to maximize 12 personnel (two tight ends).
In the one game Brady and Brown played together against the Dolphins last season, Brown caught 4 passes for 56 yards and a TD. The on-field connection could have been special had it continued. Brady simply wanted to pick up where they left off. The Bucs’ offense also offers much greater skill support than the 2019 Raiders and Patriots could.
As Brown suggested this week, the Bucs represented his last chance to keep playing in the NFL. Starting with Brady, no other team was as well positioned to get the best out of the plenty Brown still has left.
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