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BROWN OUT: NFL A HAPLESS VICTIM OF ITS SELF-INDUCED CHAOS
Antonio Brown's bizarre exit isn't a mental health debate — no, the league didn't ban him for his fake vaccine card, leading to the latest farce in a season defined by COVID-19 calamity
The public-service announcements always have been hokey, aired more out of necessity than sincerity. But never more than this season, when the NFL has flouted COVID-19 practices in its hellbent, ethically naked march to complete an entire season by the second Sunday of February.
If Roger Goodell truly cared about the health and well-being of "the NFL family'' — players, coaches, personnel, their families — he would have banned Antonio Brown last month. It should have been an easy call, a sweeping lesson for any and all coronavirus violators, after a league investigation revealed that this perpetually problematic putz had turned in a phony vaccination card. Instead, the NFL allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to decide, which exposed organizational hypocrisy that almost nullifies the goodwill that Tom Brady, Bruce Arians and the Bucs earned last winter in winning a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
Never mind that Arians had been an anti-COVID sheriff last season, a weekly vigilance that enabled a championship. Never mind that Arians, a 69-year-old cancer survivor, tested positive last week and spent days in isolation. Never mind that the head coach said this last year in granting Brown his final chance in pro football, swayed by heavy lobbying from Brady: "If he screws up one time, he's done.''
His words were bullshit, blank cartridges. The Bucs protected Brown as another weapon for Brady, especially with receiver Chris Godwin out for the season. They valued their beloved "A.B.'' to catch passes and score touchdowns, ignoring that federal investigators might show up at One Buccaneer Place and try to prosecute Brown for misrepresenting his vaccine status. Once a three-game suspension expired, he was back in pewter. "Well, the history has changed since that statement," Arians said before Christmas. "A lot of things went on last year that I was very proud of him. And I made a decision that was best for our football team."
And what if that decision was ripped to hell by those who knew better, those without a vested interest?
"I could give a shit what they think,'' Arians said. "The only thing I care about is this football team ... and what's best for us."
So when a shirtless Brown was observed Sunday in a fit of inanity that was disturbing even by his standards — quitting on his team in the third quarter, shedding his jersey and pads, throwing his shirt and gloves into the stands at MetLife Stadium, running across the end zone and waving to fans before disappearing with a peace sign for the final time into an NFL tunnel — all eyes turned to Arians. Might he give a shit now?
"He is no longer a Buc,'' Arians growled after the Bucs survived the lowly New York Jets. "That's the end of the story. Let's talk about the guys that went out there and won the games. … I'm not talking about him.''
Nor was Brown allowed to fly back with the team, having disobeyed Arians' two requests to enter the game. "Never seen anything like that in all my years,'' he said of Brown's strip tease.
Now that the social/selfish experiment has flopped, Brady is pleading for media and fans to have mercy on his friend. That invites a compelling discussion: Should Brown be embraced by compassion when Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were defended last year during their "mental health'' struggles? Or, as a football player who has found trouble on and off the field for years and blown several chances, do we kick Brown to the curb? I've lost patience, particularly after he left the stadium in a limo with a big grin, headed to Manhattan and released a rap song titled, "Pit Not The Palace.'' He was well enough to caption an Instagram post: "Big MAD (Making A Difference) Thanks for the opportunity.''
Brady and Arians extended themselves for Brown far beyond practical boundaries, allowing him to win a ring and, by inviting him back after his vaccination fraud, positioning him to earn an extra $1 million in contract incentives had he simply finished the regular season. He preferred to storm away and quit, even when teammates Mike Evans and O.J. Howard tried to calm him. "That's obviously a difficult situation," Brady said. "We all love him. We care about him deeply. We want to see him be at his best. Unfortunately, it won't be with our team. I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things that are happening.''
All of which could have been prevented by not letting him return this season. This is on Arians. This is on Brady. This is on the NFL.
Greed kills. Arrogance bites. COVID is still undefeated. That is the emerging theme of a chaotic season in which the Super Bowl favorites, the Green Bay Packers, are quarterbacked by the league's most valuable player, Aaron Rodgers, a quack-remedy crackpot who refuses to allow his arm to be jabbed — even if it sabotages his agonizing quest to win his first championship in 11 years. The Packers had no problem clinching the NFC's No. 1 seed Sunday night at rocking Lambeau Field, helped immeasurably by unvaccinated Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who tested positive and couldn't play. The Vikings can't possibly want this team-wrecker back at $35 million next season? But what front office of sane mind would trade for Cousins and assume the risks?
And the Indianapolis Colts? Looking to clinch a playoff berth, they stuck by the erratic Carson Wentz as their starting quarterback even after — as yet another anti-vaxxer — he tested positive last week and landed on the COVID-19/reserve list. He played like a straggler who still hasn't recovered, which should cast new aspersions on the league's shortened isolation period — from 10 days to five — and whether infected players are being honest about symptoms. Wentz had plenty of time to throw in the pocket but missed six of his first seven passes, saved only when an ill-advised, underthrown quail bounced fortuitously to T.Y. Hilton for a 45-yard touchdown. But the Colts lost to the Raiders anyway, with Wentz rushing a throw and missing Hilton on what seemed a certain game put-away.
"Definitely one of the weirdest weeks of my NFL career, if not the weirdest,'' Wentz said. "But we're good, locked in the virtual meetings. Just different, wouldn’t say that’s the reason for the performance or the reason we lost today by any means. Just a strange, strange week.''
And wouldn't that strange week have been helped by some reps? Should the Colts have used rookie Sam Ehlinger anyway? "Disappointing loss, really disappointed we didn’t do what we had to do in front of our home fans and clinch a spot in the playoffs,” said coach Frank Reich, who hasn't gotten much wrong this season. "Obviously, it’s always great to get every rep you can but at this time of the year, you lean on accumulated reps when you have to. It’s not uncommon for players this time of the year to miss a lot of practice time. It happens all over the league at all positions. For all of us, those players, whoever they are, have to find a way to come in and still play well.''
If this NFL season seems long and disjointed, your equilibrium is sending you a message. Expanding to a 17-game regular season, as COVID continues to disrupt teams every day, is a money-making ruse that only has led to more injuries and absences that dilute the product. There is no superteam — if Kansas City was trending that way, the Chiefs' bid for a third straight Super Bowl was upended by Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and the Cincinnati Bengals. Suddenly, the ordinary Tennessee Titans are poised to snatch the AFC's No. 1 seed, just in time for Derrick Henry to return for the playoffs. Earning a conference's best record is more vital than ever, as only the top team will have a week off followed by one or two home games. That will prove an enormous advantage, just as history has favored the teams with bye weeks in the past.
And by adding one extra wild-card team in each conference, the NFL is inviting some bad football on the first playoff weekend. Three teams without winning records — 8-8 Baltimore, 7-7-1 Pittsburgh and 8-8 New Orleans — remain eligible for berths.
Even teams that appear to be on the upswing, such as the 12-4 Los Angeles Rams, are dubious. Supposed quarterbacking savior Matthew Stafford is a turnover machine, a pick-six waiting to happen (with four this season). And why was cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a ticking bomb himself, shoving the facemask of teammate Taylor Rapp, whose head snapped backward?
"It's two great competitors. There was a little bit of a mix-up right there. You ever get into a fight with your brother? They moved on and they kept it going,'' said coach Sean McVay, suddenly not looking like such a boy wonder. "I don't think it affected our ability to move forward. These are two guys that love football, that love one another. It's healthy to be real with each other.''
Now, if only the NFL could be real with itself. Maybe we're looking in the wrong places. Could the postseason be ripe for a shock? Before we hand Rodgers a second straight MVP — as I've written, no unvaxxed player can be most valuable as he endangers his workmates — how about Burrow? Having overcome ACL surgery on his left knee, he has been sensational, becoming the first passer in NFL history to throw for 400-plus yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in back-to-back games. He aggravated a right knee injury late in Sunday's victory, but judging by his cigar-fueled dancing display in the locker room after clinching the AFC North, his swagger conceivably could take him all the way to SoFi Stadium — site of Super Bowl LVI in six Sundays.
"We were talking about the playoffs, and I said the goal was the playoffs and the easiest way to do that is to win the division," Burrow said of his preseason plan. "Everyone kind of laughed at us a little bit, but we knew the kind of team we had and the kind of guys in the locker room we had, and we knew we could go out and do it."
Everyone laughed because no team in North American professional sports has waited longer for a playoff victory, with the Bengals enduring seven straight losses since January 1991.
"We can go as far as we want to,'' said Chase, who traveled with Burrow to a national championship at LSU two years ago.
Said coach Zac Taylor of Burrow, now called Joey Jackpot: "We had expectations for him, and so far he’s exceeded those expectations. And, of course, he’s got championships on the brain. He’s playing for championships in high school, he played for championships in college, and his expectation has always been to compete for championships here. And it’s not going to be easy — we’ve got a lot to work to do — we’re not even close yet to doing all these great things. Certainly, a big step in the right direction today, and there’s no question that Joe is at the forefront of leadership on this team, and this team jumps on his back, and he’ll carry us as far as we let him.”
America could do worse than Burrow vs. Rodgers in a Hollywood Super Bowl. But Burrow is fully vaccinated, giving him a logistical and common-sense edge. As he pointed out, "We’re doing a great job with our COVID protocols. Fortunately, there’s not a lot to do in Cincinnati. No one is going out to clubs and bars every weekend and getting COVID.''
In 2022, eschewing the party for Skyline Chili qualifies as a formula for success. Those who bow down to COVID survive. Those who flout it are kicking half-naked imposters off the team so they can make rap recordings.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.