So, that was a fun eight-hour ride, wasn’t it?
That’s how long the Antonio Brown “Era” lasted with the Buffalo Bills, after the team was reported by NFL Network late Thursday night to be “closing in” on a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the star wide receiver. If a deal was in place, it was officially off at 8 a.m. Friday when Bills General Manager Brandon Beane issued the following statement:
“We inquired about Antonio Brown on Tuesday, and kept talks open with the Steelers. We had positive discussions, but ultimately it didn’t make sense for either side. As great a player as Antonio Brown is, we have moved on and our focus is on free agency.”
So that’s that. No deal.
There are still, however, plenty of takeaways from the entire saga. Here are mine:
The Bills’ emphasis on character is overblown.
Both publicly and privately, the Bills have pushed back against the idea they’re only interested in “choir boys.”
Let’s not forget that this is a team that has been unwavering in its support of running back LeSean McCoy amidst allegations that he is a serial abuser of women, children and animals. The Bills can stand by McCoy while those investigations continue, and if he is found to not be involved, nothing more comes of it. If he’s charged and found guilty of the accusations, they can simply say that new facts came to light and that’s why they are moving on.
Brown's problems relate to football character. Based on their public comments, it’s stunning the Bills would take an interest in Brown. On the surface, he’s the polar opposite of the type of player they say they want.
Check out what McDermott had to say at the NFL Scouting Combine, and then weigh that against all you’ve heard about Brown:
“I want a guy that's a team guy. I want the guy that's going to put the team first,” the coach said. “He's not looking to say, ‘I've got to have these amount of numbers.’ Receivers in general want that. That already comes with the position, but let’s find the guys who are going to do it down in and down out, put the team first and do it the right way.”
The final straw for the Steelers and Brown came when he went AWOL from the team leading up to a must-win Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Abandoning a team fighting for a spot in the postseason would seem to be a mortal "football character" sin.
Because Brown is under contract, Bills General Manager Brandon Beane couldn’t speak in specifics about the wide receiver when asked about him at the combine (doing so would be tampering).
“Listen, he's on another team, but here's what I'll say: Good players like that, you always do your due diligence,” Beane said. “You're always looking. We're always looking for any avenue – draft, free agency, trade – you know I've made moves before. If there's an opportunity at any position to make a move that we think is a good fit for us, we'll do it. So when there's players that have been in Pro Bowls or played in playoff games and things like that, that are premium-type players, you have to. I wouldn't be doing my job not to at least look into what's going on there and would they be a good fit for our organization?”
Clearly, that due diligence led the Bills to believe that Brown would not have been poisonous to the locker room, and young quarterback Josh Allen's development.
No matter what they say, the Bills know they need a No. 1 receiver.
Beane said at the combine that he doesn’t “subscribe to a No. 1 receiver.”
“Receiver’s a position that comes in all sorts of sizes,” he said. “You’ve got the guys that are 6-foot-5, 6-6, and outjumping people and going over the top. And then you’ve got some 5-7, 5-8 guys that are making plays. Even the Super Bowl champions, they've won with those types of guys. So there's a lot of different sizes, flavors, veterans, young guys, speed, size.
“We're just looking for good football players, good receivers that can make plays and that Josh can count on (that) when he throws them the ball, they're going to be where they're supposed to be and they're going to make the plays.”
McDermott also downplayed the importance of having a true No. 1.
“Generally speaking, we’re looking for guys that can get open and catch the ball,” he said. “I know that should go without saying, but let’s not make it more complicated than it is. At the end of the day a wide receiver’s job is to get open and catch the ball.”
With Brown, there isn’t more of a “No. 1 receiver” – both in terms of on-field talent and the ego that comes with that label – in the NFL. A sixth-round draft pick in 2010, he has had six consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches. He’s on a Hall of Fame path with 837 catches (28th in NFL history) for 11,207 yards (34th) and 74 touchdowns in his career.
The team is fighting Buffalo’s national perception.
There are a couple of ways this deal could have fallen apart. No. 1, the teams never were as close on a trade as NFL Network’s report suggested. No. 2, the teams got close on compensation, but Brown informed the Bills he would not report if traded to Buffalo.
That was the spin coming out of Pittsburgh on Friday morning. A report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said Brown killed the deal by saying he wouldn’t come to Buffalo. We’ve seen players use the threat of retirement as leverage before, including last offseason when Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he’d quit if traded to the Detroit Lions.
Brown’s only leverage, since he has three years remaining on his contract and does not have a no-trade clause, is threatening to walk away from a situation he doesn’t like.
If that’s the case, why would he reject the Bills? From a football perspective, Brown might look at the 31st-ranked offense from a season ago with an unproven quarterback in Allen as unattractive. Or perhaps one playoff appearance in 18 years scared him away.
The other possible sticking point deals with compensation. Brown will want a new contract wherever he goes. Perhaps his demands were more than the Bills were willing to pay.
There is also the possibility – one that will surely be played up by outsiders – he doesn’t want to live in Buffalo. That speaks to the significant hurdle Beane and Co. must overcome when trying to acquire players in free agency, or in this case, a potential trade. Convincing millionaire athletes to come to small-market, frigid Western New York isn't easy.
We’ve seen players bash Buffalo before. Who can forget Willis McGahee saying all he did was go to Dave and Buster’s, or Jordan Matthews saying he, ahem, started a family because there wasn’t anything else to do here? McCoy reportedly didn’t want to come to the Bills, until a reworked contract made him agreeable to it.
There are way more examples, though, of players coming to Buffalo and falling in love with the place. Ask Lorenzo Alexander or Micah Hyde what they think of playing here.
The problem for the Bills is the national perception of our area being some sort of Siberian wasteland isn’t going away. A big enough check might get players to overlook that, but even with their immense cap space, the Bills have to have a limit. A winning team might also sway players, but the Bills haven’t produced that.
Brown would have helped them immensely in that regard, but it never came to be.