Patriots signing Antonio Brown exhibits winning above all else

When Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden bid Antonio Brown goodbye earlier Saturday -- that was Saturday, right? -- he said something curious.

"I hope he gets what he's looking for," Gruden remarked.

He apparently did. Brown's giddy reaction to his release from Oakland -- we know thanks to another video Brown posted -- makes you wonder if this was Brown's plan as soon as he realized the Raiders were going to try to hold him to account for his behavior over the last month. Force his way out of Oakland with increasingly erratic and unacceptable behavior, the way he forced his way out of Pittsburgh just nine months ago, and choose his landing spot. It's hard to believe Brown could have been so thrilled to lose millions when the Raiders released him if he did not know that he would have a deal shortly, with the guaranteed money he wanted, with a nifty move from one of the NFL's worst teams to its best.

The conspiracy theorists of the NFL will have quite a time sorting through this latest installment of the Patriot Way. But let's be clear: There was never any doubt that someone would take Brown on. If walking out before the most important game of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season last year, the only team he had ever known and the one that apparently cajoled and coddled him as he became perhaps the NFL's greatest receiver, didn't raise enough red flags for the "I can fix him" set, then the Oakland Raiders' failure to get even one game of production for their troubles wouldn't either.

New England coach Bill Belichick really does fix malcontents, at least some of them, although the Corey Dillon and Randy Moss experiments pale in comparison to the hand grenade Belichick just launched into his franchise. Still, in the Patriots' calculus, Brown is worth it. They are not in the business of setting good examples for kids. They are in the business of winning more championships, especially with Tom Brady's career coming to an end at some point. That they just showed everybody that conduct detrimental to the team can be rewarded is not the Patriots' problem. Their problem is getting Brown on the field without further incident and then getting him the ball.

Brown is that good, and the outsize production that has greenlit the leeway he has been afforded is to his credit. He works maniacally at being a better receiver. That offseason video of him training by catching bricks -- while wearing Gucci shoes -- was not a mirage. Anybody who ever watched a Steelers practice saw Brown catch hundreds of balls from a Jugs machine after everybody else had cleared the field. That work ethic is what took him from sixth-round pick to superstar.

What he has not worked on is being a better member of a team or being a professional. The NFL has always had diva receivers. But Terrell Owens' driveway sit-ups look quaint compared with Brown's spellbinding and disturbing self-destruction. He wanted a trade from the Steelers in part, it seems, because he was not voted the team's most valuable player. You can wonder about whether Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was too lenient with Brown all these years and how much that is contributing to the state Brown is in now. But Tomlin also got season after season of top-end production out of Brown. The Raiders did not get one game, after trading draft picks to get him, giving him a big contract, enduring the cryotherapy injuries, the helmet hissy fit, a public threat to general manager Mike Mayock, and then a taped conversation with the head coach being turned into a highly produced promotional video.

On Saturday, head coach Jon Gruden stated the obvious -- the Raiders had exhausted everything to make it work with Brown. Gruden is clearly disappointed that things did not work out. Mayock, who is a close friend of Belichick's, surely has some thoughts, too, about how he gave up draft picks for a player who now will play for Belichick.

There is always greater tolerance for greater talent in the NFL, but Brown has now proven too toxic for two of the league's most player-friendly coaches and franchises -- not everyone would have tried everything to make this work, especially after Brown threatened Mayock -- in the space of just nine months, and that says a lot more about him than it does about them. The rapid acceleration of Brown's behavioral decline finally outpaced his physical gifts on Saturday, and that raises a question that even the Patriots had to wonder about.

It's entirely fair to question if Brown even wants to play football anymore and what personal factors precipitated this extraordinary meltdown. Those are delicate, difficult questions at a moment when Brown's public emotional state has swung like a pendulum. We have all gawked at the Raiders' follies with Brown, but Brown was clearly in some degree of private turmoil and that has to be addressed and not simply enabled -- by the people closest to him and, alas, by the Patriots. All signings are just a cost-benefit analysis. Brown surely likes the trappings of the NFL, but he just threw to the wind what should have been $30 million guaranteed over what? An outdated helmet? A five-figure fine? The benefits of Brown's presence are clear in any stat line. The costs are not simply reflected in the payroll. They are borne by those who have to make an entire team function. Brown simply cost too much for the Steelers and the Raiders. The entire league will be watching to see if the Patriots pay a price for what seems like at least a small bit of organizational arrogance.

There is one very good reason to believe this thing can work, for both the Patriots and for Brown. There is only one way to do things in New England, and that is Belichick's way. There will be no threats to a general manager, no missing practice because of a disliked helmet, no late arrivals or inattention in meetings. In 2009, Belichick sent a dumbfounded Adalius Thomas home as punishment after he was less than 10 minutes late to a meeting the morning after a heavy snowfall. If Brown can line up with his teammates and march to those kinds of rules -- which he clearly wasn't able or willing to do in Pittsburgh or Oakland -- then the Patriots just signed the best receiver in franchise history and a weapon that will help them keep pace with explosive offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs. The risk is minimal -- this is a one-year deal. If it doesn't work, the Patriots say goodbye to Brown (and hello to a possible 2020 third-round compensatory pick) with much less regret than Gruden seems to.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Julio Jones and the Falcons have agreed on a three-year, $66 million contract that includes a mammoth $64 million guaranteed, meaning this is close to the fully guaranteed contracts of NFL players' dreams. It is a potential game-changer in the business of football and it comes with an unspoken, but very clear message: That is what is available when there is a marriage of production and character.

The drama is ending in Oakland as the Patriots set about fixing Brown. They might start by passing along the message the Falcons just distributed. Brown has never had any problem with production. But to salvage the rest of his career, and to get that next big payday when he is a free agent at the end of this season, Brown and those around him must eventually address his character. Whether it was the Patriots or something else that Brown is really looking for, he's unlikely to find it, permanently, without that.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.

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