Antonio Brown makes Patriots debut as NFL investigation looms

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Antonio Brown had already left Hard Rock Stadium -- his clothes gone, the name plate removed -- by the time the locker room doors opened to the world. With him unable or unwilling to speak for himself since he signed with New England eight days ago, the scene that may express most loudly the takeaway from Brown's debut as a member of the Patriots came, instead, from much earlier in the day, during the team's very first drive against the Miami Dolphins.

Brown was jogging off the field, having already caught Tom Brady's first three passes, when he looked up to the heavily pro-Patriots crowd and waved his arms to ask for noise. The fans, who had already cheered each time he touched the ball in pregame warmups, roared at his behest.

In Sunday's dominant 43-0 win, Brown got to immerse himself in the NFL's most efficient offense -- Brady insisted he was merely looking to throw to the open receiver, not making an effort to get Brown integrated early -- to the tune of four receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown catch on a beauty of a back-shoulder throw from Brady. And he got to bathe in the adoration of fans who chose, for a few hours at least, to ignore the rape accusation the NFL will begin in earnest to investigate this week.

As the sign held aloft by two young men before the game noted, borrowing Brown's favorite expression: New England is Boomin.

That, it is. The Patriots have won their first two games by a combined score of 76-3, so whether you find their signing of Brown surprising after the bizarre stunts he pulled in Oakland and Pittsburgh -- and their retention of him unseemly after they learned of the rape allegation -- you cannot argue with the results. The Patriots are steamrolling opponents right now as they have not done since 2007. Yes, the Patriots embraced another malcontent then in Randy Moss, to great effect. No, there is no other comparison to be made to that situation, because the severity of the accusation against Brown has shifted the Patriots' embrace of him from what had been a study in team chemistry into a window into the ethos of winning at all costs.

So here we are, with the focus about to shift to the NFL's expected meeting Monday with the woman accusing Brown, Britney Taylor, his former trainer. Brown's lawyer has denied the accusations and has threatened to countersue, and it will be up to the NFL -- which has made plenty of its own headlines in its handling of cases involving alleged violence against women -- to sort through the ugliness and decide if Brown should be allowed on the field.

You could make a pretty good argument that the league was right in allowing Brown to play Sunday. So far, it has only an accusation to go on. The investigation has just begun, there are no criminal charges, or even a criminal investigation. To keep a player off the field on the basis of an accusation -- however awful -- that has emerged from a civil case is a slippery slope for the NFL to go down and would surely invite a fight with the players' union. The league's decision isn't final, and the situation is fluid. There are more than a few people who would be relieved if the investigation turns up enough to put Brown on the Commissioner's Exempt List while the investigation plays out.

Still, Brown's presence in the lineup Sunday should have at least been discomfiting to all but the most rabid believers, but whatever compunction the Patriots feel about his presence on their team must have been fleeting Sunday. He warmed up with no shoes on, embraced his agent Drew Rosenhaus and chatted with Chad Ochocinco -- another former Bill Belichick reclamation project who served as a reminder that they don't all work out. When his warmup was over, Brown threw a football to a fan, then posed for a selfie. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Patriots owner Robert Kraft did not know that Brown was about to be accused of rape when the team agreed to a contract with him last Saturday. Had he known, according to Rapoport, Kraft would not have green-lit the contract. But of course, Kraft could have interceded once he knew -- he could have told Belichick to release Brown. He could have at least told him to deactivate him.

Workplaces and bosses have no obligation to be fair. They have businesses to protect, but the cold reality is this: The Patriots have clearly decided that for however long they have Brown, he will be very good for business. Whatever Kraft was saying to Rosenhaus in a sideline conversation at the end of the game, it came after Brown had already worn a Patriots uniform, diluting any expression of dismay Kraft must have initially felt.

That Brown played successfully after just a few days of preparation -- albeit very long days -- is to the credit of his undeniable skills. He lined up in the slot and outside, ran the ball on a reverse and toyed with the defense a few other times. There were a few plays in which his timing with Brady was clearly off, and the knowledge that those miscommunications will likely disappear soon with more practice has to terrify opponents.

"I don't think any of us had any doubts about AB's skill set," said his teammate Josh Gordon. "I think it was just good for everybody to see it in an actual game. For us, it's a tremendous asset. There's no way you can pinpoint one facet of our offense to try to shut us down. With him, it's a huge help."

For however long they have him. That is the important caveat for the Patriots now. Gordon spoke freely about Brown, but Brady was much more tight-lipped. Even if Brady entirely supports Brown's presence, it is understandable if he wants to choose his words carefully until Brown's situation is fully resolved.

If the NFL's investigation turns up nothing, the sight of Brown beating defenders off the line of scrimmage will become routine and we can return to the more rudimentary and ridiculous Brown concerns, like whether he is upset that he is not getting the ball as much as he wants. But if the investigation uncovers anything to support Taylor's accusation, if Brown is put on the exempt list but remains on the roster, we can wonder just how much queasiness the Patriots are willing to endure in the hopes that Brown will eventually be available again, perhaps for a Super Bowl run.

Brady was asked if he felt conflicted in any way about Brown playing, given the circumstances.

"I don't make any of those decisions," Brady said. "I just show up and play and do my job."

Even as the fans cheered Brown as he ran off the field at the end of the game with a huge smile, for the people who do make those decisions -- from Foxborough to Park Avenue -- the moral tightrope gets narrower.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista

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