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Could Tom Brady get Antonio Brown back into the NFL?

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

For months, Tom Brady has been subtly cheerleading for Antonio Brown. A little message of support here ... a couple of Instagram “likes” there ... even an eyebrow-raising heart emoji from Brady on March 6, responding to Brown posting a contrite tweet about how “[a]nger and ego kicked my ass for about 6 months” and how Brown had forgotten about “hard work and grace.”

Despite the New England Patriots having gone through an exceedingly messy breakup with Brown (including a $10 million union grievance against the franchise and a shot taken at team owner Robert Kraft), Brady never seemed to shy away from showing support for the All-Pro wideout. Whether Brown was going off the rails in football or his personal life, Brady seemed dedicated to maintaining a relationship.

Now comes a pertinent question that will press deep into the offseason: With Brady joining a Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise that doesn’t harbor seething anger toward Brown, could the quarterback finally seek a reunion that was impossible in New England?

Tom Brady celebrates Antonio Brown's touchdown for the New England Patriots against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 15, 2019. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

In a world of simplicity, absolutely. In the world of reality? Well ... let’s just say that Brown’s world of reality has been anything but simple for a long time.

That doesn’t mean the Buccaneers wouldn’t entertain a Brady and Brown reunion, particularly if that was something Brady had expressed prior to signing in Tampa Bay. But when considering a pursuit of Brown that could be as risky as it is fruitful, the fact is the Buccaneers don’t have an idea of when — or if — Brown will be available to play in the league again. Nobody does. As a league spokesman told Yahoo Sports once again on Wednesday, Brown’s status “remains under review” and has no timeline attached to it.

Antonio Brown in investigative purgatory

That investigative purgatory has existed since September, with the threat that any team signing Brown would be subject to having him immediately placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and set aside for however long the league deems necessary.

This was part of the problem for the New Orleans Saints, who worked out Brown late in the NFL season and then declined to extend him any offer. A workout that infuriated Brown to the point of calling it a “publicity stunt.” A Saints source disputed that account to Yahoo Sports, while adding that the league’s investigation wasn’t the only reason the team wasn’t extending an offer.

Not long after that workout and some of Brown’s ensuing behavior played out on his social media accounts, his mental health became a more widely discussed aspect of his evaluation across the league — including commissioner Roger Goodell highlighting the NFL’s concern during his Super Bowl address.

“Antonio’s situation, I think the first thing for all of us is to think about the well-being of Antonio,” Goodell said. “To understand what Antonio is going through. We don’t talk about the wellness of our players publicly, but I would tell you that you can be assured that the NFL and the NFLPA have a tremendous amount of resources that are available to all players that are going to be made available to Antonio. ... We want to help get him on the right track and get him in a position where he is in a zone where he thinks he can be successful in life. We are confident that can happen. We want to work to do that. From our standpoint, that’s the first step. The first step is making sure that we’re doing everything to help Antonio.”

Since those remarks by Goodell, the NFL has declined to comment on any specifics about the league’s engagement with Brown or whether there is a “wellness” evaluation that would be necessary for the NFL to conclude its personal conduct investigation into the wideout. That investigation has been ongoing since September, when two women levied sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations against Brown.

From a wider vantage, that’s just one part of what makes Brown a complicated consideration for the Buccaneers — even if the team is “all-in” on the Brady window. Not only is Brown engaged in union grievances against the Las Vegas Raiders and Patriots, he’s got the league’s investigation hanging overhead, as well as a civil suit filed by one of the women who is alleging Brown sexually assaulted her.

Then, there’s Brown’s wildly fluctuating actions on social media, where he has attacked seemingly everyone who has backed him at some point in the past several months. That has included all of his previous NFL teams; his former agent, Drew Rosenhaus; and one of his former lawyers. He was also arrested for allegedly assaulting a moving truck driver in front of his home in January.

Would Brown fit on the Buccaneers?

And even if Tampa Bay can stomach all of that, there’s the reality that the Buccaneers already have two dominant wideouts in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, whose production would most certainly take some kind of hit if another high-volume wideout like Brown was added to the roster. It’s particularly notable that Godwin has plenty to protect at this stage of his career, given that the 2020 season is the final year of his contract and Tampa Bay has made an extension a priority this offseason.

None of this even gets into how Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians views Brown at this stage, which could be a drastically different opinion than when Arians coached Brown for two years when he was the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the very least, Arians gave a look into his assessment in January 2019 when he told ESPN there was “too much diva” in the fallout between the Steelers and Brown.

“There’s too much miscommunication,” Arians said on a podcast with ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “Too much diva. I’ve heard so many stories. I like Antonio. He plays as hard as anybody on Sunday, and he practices hard. He’s just gotta make better decisions off the field, be on time, do some of those little things.”

Brown — as he is known to do — fired back on social media, posting a tweet that suggested Arians himself was a diva, while making note of the coach’s trademark Kangol and sunglasses look.

Add all of that up and the totality becomes obvious that there’s nothing simple about considering Brown as an addition. Even if the newest crown jewel on the roster wants it to happen. At this point, a litany of things would have to happen for Tampa Bay to even consider Brown. The first would be Brady making it known he’d like to bring him aboard. After that, it would take ownership signing off on the idea, then reaching out to Goodell and pushing for some kind of timeline on Brown’s investigation.

None of which addresses what kinds of hurdles Brown himself would have to clear to become a viable option in Tampa Bay. Would he take a reasonable contract that is instantly cuttable at the first sign of trouble — despite turning 32 in July and seeing his earning potential nearing a cliff? Is his “wellness” in a place where the NFL is comfortable? Could he fit in with two other high-volume wide receivers who would command as much attention as he would from Brady?

That’s a lot to consider. But a lot has been risked on Brady, too. If this roll of the dice on a soon-to-be 43-year-old savior doesn’t work, any additional risk on Brown might be irrelevant anyway. The question is how far does Tampa Bay want to take this “all-in” approach — and how hard is Brady willing to push for players now that he’s inside it?

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