Column: Antonio Brown is all in - at least for now
Antonio Brown is right about one thing: Helmets are important.
The way Brown has been toying with his new team makes you wonder if he has ever worn one.
The latest from Raider Nation on Tuesday was that the enigmatic wide receiver was on the practice field — and had with him a helmet officially certified by the NFL. That was certainly progress, even if it doesn’t mean Brown will be on the field Thursday night when the Raiders travel to Winnipeg to meet the Packers in the last meaningful exhibition game of the preseason.
But if any further proof was needed of Brown’s intent to play this season — and collect the $30 million guaranteed under his new contract — he had a smile on his face and a helmet in his hand as he left the closed practice.
And, two days after general manager Mike Mayock issued an ultimatum for his star receiver to decide if he’s all in on the season, the official word was Brown was, um, all in.
“I’m confident that he’s going to be a heck of player for us and be ready to roll,” coach Jon Gruden proclaimed.
Just what that means for Brown and the Raiders isn’t quite clear. The helmet issue isn’t totally settled, and neither is the team’s relationship with a star being counted on to help lift the Raiders out of the doldrums just in time for the team’s move to Las Vegas next season.
But for now all is good from head to toe. Brown’s frostbitten feet, Gruden said, are healing, and he’s got a certified helmet to use even while filing a second grievance with the NFL to be allowed to wear his old one for one more season.
And really, the NFL preseason is for rookies, not game-changing superstars. Despite Mayock’s bluster, the Raiders will be fine with everything as long as Brown lines up on the outside when the Raiders open their last season in Oakland on Sept. 9 against the Denver Broncos.
“There is a lot of teams that are missing star players,” Gruden said. “My brother (Washington coach Jay Gruden) is missing one. The Cowboys are missing one. The Texans are missing one. That’s part of this league. Every year there are exceptions that you got to deal with, and I like our team, man. I like the way we are competing, and I like the way we are working.”
That’s easy to say with nearly three weeks before the season kicks off for real. Like every other team, the Raiders are unbeaten and believe they can be playoff contenders, even if the bookies in Las Vegas say otherwise.
But so far Derek Carr hasn’t thrown a pass to Brown when he’s been covered by someone in a different uniform. So far the only time Brown’s name has been mentioned has been in a sentence that included either bad feet, old helmet or hot air balloon.
That gives HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series plenty of material to work with. But it doesn’t give long-suffering fans in Oakland much hope that their beloved Raiders will make one final glorious run to the playoffs before running off to fame and riches in Las Vegas.
For that to happen, Brown has to be the player the Raiders hoped he would be when they got him on the cheap from the Steelers, who wanted no more of him after he left the team before the final game last year after reportedly arguing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
For that to happen, Carr needs to regain his confidence on the field and find some common ground with his new receiver. And that can’t happen with Brown checking into practice only when he feels the inspiration.
Brown is a singular talent, whose 686 catches and 9,145 yards the past six seasons in Pittsburgh are the best marks ever for a receiver in a six-year span. He’s a game changer for a team that desperately needs one if it is going to get past the six wins oddsmakers in the team’s future home of Las Vegas are predicting this season.
But if his opening weeks with the team are any indication, it’s going to take all of Gruden’s considerable talents of persuasion to keep Brown on the field. Already, Brown has shown with his twin dramas of frostbitten feet and bad helmet that he’s going to have to be coddled to be happy — and he’s yet to play a snap for his new team.
Yes, the feet are getting better and Brown may be able to adjust to a new helmet. But the season has yet to begin, and there are plenty of potential minefields ahead.
With all the drama still to come, it might be a good idea for the “Hard Knocks” cameras to stick around.
Because while the Raiders don’t figure to be much to watch, Brown will surely be must-see TV.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg