Antonio Brown reported to Raiders training camp in a hot-air balloon. The team’s film crew documented Brown’s big ride through the Napa Valley, which came ready with a tagline befitting his transportation: “Float like a butterfly, sting like AB.”
Spectacle fits Brown well. The eccentric superstar receiver enjoys production value, and his grand entrance became a hot topic during a July 26 press conference with general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden at the Napa Valley Marriott.
“I expect a lot more drama from No. 84,” Gruden said. “I really do.”
Gruden was referring to the guy who, just five months earlier, forced his way out of Pittsburgh after being benched for the Steelers' Week 17 game, said hell no to Buffalo and got a big, fat pay raise from the Raiders.
Brown leveraged his Hall of Fame talent to force a trade to a place he liked, offering a pay rate he deemed appropriate, with a pseudo-threat succinctly expressed to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington.
“If they want me to play, they’re gonna play by my rules,” Brown said in an interview released March 2. “If not, I don’t need to play.”
That hard line worked perfectly this spring. He’s apparently using it again this summer.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Friday that Brown told the Raiders he will not play football again unless he’s allowed to wear a helmet that is prohibited from use, is no longer certified and won't be again because it is more than 10 years old.
Brown has filed a grievance that was heard by an independent neutral arbitrator Friday, per a league source. The arbitrator was appointed by the NFL Players Association and the league, and both the union and the league were represented, while Brown participated by phone. The arbitrator has not ruled on the grievance, though a decision could come next week.
What happens if the arbitrator rules against Brown wearing a no-longer-certified helmet? Will he take his gold-jacket-level skills and go home? Will he take his $50 million contract, with nearly $30 million guaranteed, and light it on fire over a helmet?
Can't imagine that.
Gruden might have expected more Antonio Brown drama. He and the Raiders couldn't have anticipated all this, though.
When he made the not-so-bold drama prediction, Gruden knew Brown would hit the non-football injury list for peeling, infected feet that we can’t un-see. Gruden knew about Brown’s helmet gripes and comically haphazard attempts to use his preferred model, which were expertly chronicled by intrepid NFL Media reporter Mike Silver in an epic Twitter thread Friday.
Threatening to quit over equipment, and, per Silver, staying away from Raiders training camp in part to voice displeasure with new helmet rules, is a headache immune to aspirin.
It can’t be what Gruden needs or wants while trying to fortify an improved yet still deficient Raiders roster that must play together to surpass relatively low expectations. The Raiders have been in contact with Brown, sources say, and there's a belief that he'll be back in camp soon, possibly early next week. There are, however, no assurances for an unpredictable sort like Brown.
The NFL generally operates on a talent-tolerance scale. The better a player you are, the more you can get away with in the league.
There’s little debate that Brown is the very best, at worst ranking high among other elites. Teams are willing to handle a great deal for dynamic, game-changing production.
The Raiders don't mind his let-everybody-in social media presence. They permitted his personal trainer to roam the sidelines during camp. They allowed his masseuse to watch at least one OTA practice. Even on the day he practiced despite his foot issues, Brown had his work cut short as planned and was seen playing with his children while practice was held.
All that was fine because, when it comes time to work, Brown is awesome. He elevates those around him and constantly pushes for better. He never downshifts on the practice field, and he has a track record of doing the same in games. He works out hard away from the team, and he put serious effort into building chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr this offseason.
Brown isn’t doing any of those positive things right now. He can’t practice because of his foot issues. He can’t set a new standard for accountability around camp, as he promised in his introductory press conference, if he isn’t here while fighting to wear the helmet he wants.
You can’t blame Brown for trying or resorting to threats, though. He used it this offseason, and got out of Pittsburgh and received a raise. Positive results often induce repeat behaviors.
This helmet situation might not be so easily fought and won, considering player safety is involved and individual teams have been charged with policing the rules.
However it pans out, Brown now has become a training-camp distraction, and “Hard Knocks” will detail all of it in future episodes if the Raiders allow it into the final cut.
It also must be noted that this could be a soap-opera turn with a happy ending, if Brown returns healthy and produces come the regular-season opener.
That ultimately remains uncertain, but we can say for sure that Brown has stolen focus from Raiders training camp and created tons of drama. Even Gruden might have underestimated exactly how much his new star receiver would bring.