The latest episode of "Hard Knocks" offered up a lesson in perception versus reality.
From the outside, the drama around Antonio Brown looks like a terrible situation for the Raiders. How could it not be? Here is Oakland's best player, its prized offseason acquisition, making decisions that seem to put self-interest above the team. In his final season in Pittsburgh, Brown was portrayed as egocentric, distant and obtuse -- this just looked like more of the same. To compound matters, NFL Films has keycard access to every door of the building for its flagship docuseries. It all adds up to organizational nightmare fuel for the Silver & Black.
But here's the thing: The Raiders don't seem like a team torn asunder by their mercurial star. On "Hard Knocks," we've watched a professionally run training camp filled with players and coaches who seem to genuinely like being around each other. Maybe it's all eyewash. Maybe I'm just another dumb consumer who gets sucked in by manufactured reality TV. But when Jon Gruden tells a Raiders staffer, "I give the guy credit for standing up for what he believes in. Everybody else does in this country," I believe him.
Is it possible the Raiders have a camera-free, soundproof panic room adjacent to Gruden's office where he can rage destroy a full Ikea living room set every time AB goes AWOL? Yes, it's possible. But I think the real story here is that Gruden has been in regular communication with his star wide receiver, has vouched for him from the start of this saga, and those good vibes have allowed the coach to keep this situation -- however unusual and annoying it may be -- from turning into something much uglier.
And why do I think that? Because on Tuesday we heard it from Brown himself.
"Thanks for supporting me, coach," Brown says during a quiet moment at practice. "My f-----' head, the feet, people after me. You've been the constant supporter."
A day later, Brown goes missing again over the helmet issue. General manager Mike Mayock makes his speech to reporters, essentially challenging Brown to fall in line. Mayock did what he had to do as GM; Gruden is doing what he needs to do as head coach. It's not quite Good Cop/Bad Cop, but it's something close.
"The feet feeling a lot better," Brown tells a "Hard Knocks" producer earlier in the week. "I got brand-new skin. Got it all trimmed up. It's been a journey, man, but I feel a lot better. Working with the NFL, getting the right equipment, I've been working hard on the side. I've been going, taking care of the feet. So, I mean, I want to give it to my teammates, so, hopefully, soon get out there and get to work.
"You know, too much noise right now. More work, less noise. I feel like I was enemy of the f---ing state. F---. Getting the feet trimmed up. I'm on every channel. Because AB is actually a good player. A really good player. And he's a handsome-looking player, by the way. So that's all it is right there."
Brown is a handful. There's no question about that. But Gruden might be the right coach at the right time to keep this from turning into the toxic, season-wrecking situation many assumed was inevitable.
-- One more note on Brown: When Mayock dropped his "all-in or all-out" ultimatum, the language in his comments made you wonder if Brown's repeated absences had created friction with teammates. But then you watch "Hard Knocks" and Brown seems like legit best friends with everybody on the damn roster. I know the NFL is different than it used to be and guys from all teams mingle, but Brown literally just became a Raider and has missed large swaths of team activities. How is he supertight with dozens of teammates? He's even down with Burfict!
-- Man, a lot of guys are super sensitive about their hair, so I felt for rookie Hunter Renfrow, who gets teased by teammates for looking older than his 23 years. "I'm really not that old," Renfrow tells a prodding Derek Carr. "My granddad's hair like this. It's just our hairline ... it's not like it's receding." Aw, his granddad.
-- Luke Willson is that dude. The long-haired veteran tight end comes flying off the top turnbuckle in his "Hard Knocks" debut and I'm going to be super upset if he doesn't win a job out of camp. He's a Canadian who loves Ozzy Osbourne solo records, hates how his calves make him self-conscious, and will try very hard to not be impressed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Big Red wins him over, though.
-- On the subject of long-haired bros who know how to party, give it up for Jamie Hepner, applied sports scientist and work buddy of Antonio Brown. Says AB: "Men lie, women lie, but the analytics don't."
-- Gruden does at least one thing every week that cracks me because of the, well, inherent JON GRUDENNESS of it all. Late in that preseason game against the Cardinals, Gruden is chatting with rookie safety Johnathan Abram and Carr when the coach launches into an utterly unexpected monologue about the incredible all-around ability of former Chargers and Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. When it's clear Abram -- aged 12 when Harrison retired after the 2008 season -- has checked out mentally, Gruden spins away and mutters, "You don't even know who that is." Beautiful.
-- Quote Of The Week:"Why don't you do something funny here tonight, Frank?" -- Jon Gruden to a flailing Frank Caliendo