The relationship between Tom Brady and Antonio Brown was forged in a scant 11 days a year ago, when the unlikely duo paired briefly to give the New England Patriots the offensive sizzle they lacked after he was released to Brady's obvious frustration.
That it will soon renew now in Tampa Bay was predictable only to those who followed the breadcrumbs of their chemistry and who understand the power dynamics of an NFL franchise, who watched that one game in Miami last September when, after just a few days of practice, Brown caught four passes for 56 yards, including a beauty of a back shoulder touchdown throw from Brady. That day, with an NFL investigation into a rape allegation looming, Brady was asked if he felt conflicted about Brown, given the circumstances.
"I don't make any of those decisions," Brady said. "I just show up and play and do my job."
Well, not entirely. What Brady wants, Brady often gets, which is why his ongoing support of Brown – he retweeted a contrite tweet from Brown in March, adding a heart emoji – culminated Friday night with the news that the Buccaneers are expected to soon sign him. (**UPDATE:** Tampa Bay and Brown finalized and agreed to a one-year deal, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Saturday.) This deal lands fully in Brady's lap to make it work. He made little attempt to conceal his frustration for much of last season in Foxborough, because he did not have the weapons he believed the Patriots should have had. He has them in bunches in the Bucs, but there is no question Brown would not be in Tampa if Brady didn't want him there.
Is Brady's pining for Brown odd? Maybe a little, although he has also remained loyal during Brown's darkest days. Is it a bad look that all is forgiven before Brown has even finished serving an eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the league's personal conduct policy? Sure. Those violations stemmed from Brown's no contest plea to burglary and battery charges in Florida and accusations he sent intimidating texts to a woman who accused him of making unwanted advances toward her.
When his suspension was announced in July, the NFL was still looking into civil claims of sexual assault and rape against the receiver, although Commissioner Roger Goodell struck a notably sympathetic note when he spoke of Brown at the Super Bowl in January, saying the league was thinking foremost of his well-being and wanting to help him get on track to be successful in life.
But most confusing is why a team like the Bucs, which is so clearly aiming for a Super Bowl, is willing to take on one of the most combustible people in the game, even if it would satisfy the star quarterback. It's worth remembering that when last Brown was regularly in the news, he had forced his way out of Pittsburgh, suffered a foot injury from cryotherapy, refused to practice with the Raiders because of a dispute over his helmet, nearly got into a fight with the Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, forced his way out of the Raiders and then had his brief stay in New England before the Patriots released him as the troubling allegations surfaced and the league's investigation loomed.
The answer would seem obvious. The Bucs are in all-in mode, having gathered up Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette, to add to their own star receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and one of the league's best defenses. The problem is that so many of the Bucs' weapons are banged up. And considering Brown is expected to sign only a one-year contract, which will in effect only be a half-year contract because he is not eligible to play until his suspension ends after week 8, this is a low-risk, potentially extremely high reward move. None of what the Bucs have done recently is about a long-term plan – their future runs to about February. They only have to keep Brown on the right track until then.
Brady's role will be critical, not just as a team leader but as a Brown counselor and confidante. And, needless to say, Brown must now repay Brady for his steadfast support. In March, Bruce Arians, the Bucs head coach who was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator for Brown's first two seasons as a Steeler, expressed concern about the dynamic Brown creates when he was asked about the prospect of a reunion with Brown.
"It's not going to happen," he said in a radio interview. "There's no room, you know? It's just not a fit here. I just know him and it's not a fit in our locker room."
He fits now. Arians and Brown will have to make their peace, but of course that will be much more likely with Brady playing intermediary. If they do, and if Brown can be even some percentage of what he was at his best in Pittsburgh, he will certainly help an offense that finally showed its potential in a 38-10 crushing of the Packers last weekend. For his part, Brown has struck the right notes of contrition since the summer.
"I look forward to new beginnings," he wrote on Instagram after his suspension was announced. "I want to be the best version of myself on and off the field, and I will do my best to be a great teammate."
That would be a relief for the Bucs and a reward for their quarterback.