At his best, Antonio Brown is one of the most dynamic wide receivers in all of football. A quick look at his numbers during his career with the Steelers makes that fact abundantly clear. At his worst he can be a massive distraction capable of derailing a stable NFL locker room. That’s the danger the Raiders are staring square in the eyes at the moment.
By now, everyone has heard about Brown’s crazy behavior over the past week. First, news surfaced that he badly damaged his feet by entering a cryotherapy chamber without the proper footwear. Fans who were misfortunate enough to see the photos of his feet on social media will never be able to forget that grizzly image.
Brown took his craziness to an all new level with his concerns about his helmet. The NFL discontinued the model he’d used during his entire career to date. The league’s rationale is alarmingly simple. In an effort to improve player safety, they don’t allow anyone to wear a helmet that’s over 10 years old. Even Tom Brady has come to grips with that rule this offseason.
Instead of accepting the league’s decision like an adult, Brown elected to throw multiple tantrums. He berated members of Oakland’s equipment staff on multiple occasions. My personal favorite anecdote from the saga is that he tried to repaint a Steelers helmet in Raiders colors to fool team officials into letting him use it in practice. Sadly for Brown, he couldn’t manage to get the colors quite right.
Jon Gruden and company might try to insist that Brown’s behavior isn’t a distraction to the team, but that’s nonsense. He’s got a young, impressionable team that needs to learn what it means to be a professional football player. If any of Oakland’s young talent chooses Brown to be their role model off the field then their career will likely end in disaster.
The question I’d like to answer in this piece is what impact Brown going off the proverbial reservation might have on the Raiders. In fairness, expectations for Gruden and company this season aren’t all that high. Currently you can bet on them to win the AFC West at 22:1. It’s reasonable to think the Raiders will be a better football team in 2019 compared to their disastrous 2018 campaign, but expecting them to be a playoff contender has always been a pipe dream.
Given that fact, you might be tempted to think Brown’s antics can’t really hurt the Raiders this season. You couldn’t be more wrong. This season is still a crucial developmental year for Gruden and his coaching staff. His young talent needs to take a step forward. Without Brown, that is going to be a much more difficult task.
In particular, losing out on Brown is going to be a massive blow to Gruden’s offensive system. The coaching staff has some amount of faith in Derek Carr to re-emerge as their franchise quarterback, but that can only happen if he’s surrounded by quality playmakers at the skill positions.
Brown projects to be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver by a wide margin. The team also splashed serious cash to sign Tyrell Williams in free agency, but he’s nowhere near ready to take on that sort of role. Optimistic NFL executives think he can develop into an above-average No. 2 receiver in time. Being forced into the No. 1 role without Brown there to help him carry the load could seriously stunt his growth as a player.
Brown’s absence would also have a profoundly negative impact on the Raiders’ hopes of building a quality ground game. Drafting Josh Jacobs in the first round was a poor example of front office maneuvering, but the team does hope he can be their feature back right away. Jacobs has talent, but he’s not going to overcome a lot of eight man fronts in his rookie season. The Raiders need their offense to use the passing game to open up holes for their run game. Trying to engineer success in reverse will result in a miserable failure.
The worst news for Gruden and the Raiders is that they cannot afford to do anything but support Brown through all his shenanigans. They have too much invested in him as a player to simply let him go. Releasing the enigmatic pass catcher would place the team squarely into salary cap hell. Like it or not, the silver and black are stuck with their crazy wide receiver. Time will tell if he forces everyone in Oakland to go down with the ship.