By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Just spend one September in the Patriots locker room and you'll know the difference between a normal week and the kind where controversy floods in from outside. The cameras multiply exponentially. There's a little less space to walk around. Everyone, including the players, has less room to breathe.
Antonio Brown has dragged the latter atmosphere into Gillette Stadium. And this is a different kind of noise. You can overdramatize the impact of deflated footballs. You can oversell tension between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, or pretend a 2-2 September record has any bearing on their ability to hoist the Lombardi in February.
You cannot minimize accusations of rape and sexual assault. You can't speak loosely on a case like this, or on a player attracting this amount of attention for such a serious matter. The team captains who spoke Wednesday reflected that unease.
Is this really a circus worth bringing to Foxboro?
This is not to say that the Patriots knew about the allegations, or that Brown's presence will disrupt the football operation. They're still by far the best team in the league at keeping the focus on football, and the best team period. As long as Brown falls in line, he'll probably produce big-time and the Patriots will have trouble losing even a game. The Patriots were probably making the Super Bowl, probably winning it, with or without him.
Now that Brown has had his first Wednesday practice, though, it seems they'll need to get No. 7 with him. The Patriots appear to be letting the NFL decide Brown's fate on the field. The league has a tough decision whether to place him on the commissioner's exempt list, mainly because he faces a civil lawsuit and no criminal charges. So for anyone following the Patriots, it's best to be prepared for a roller coaster ride.
The sexual assault case could go away. Investigations could close and Brown could be smooching the trophy in Miami without even a sniff of trouble for the next five months. We could throw an 18-week bender getting obliterated on Brown's dazzling highlights and gaudy fantasy numbers. If everything goes well from here, it'll be a hell of a party.
Other than that, though, what benefit is there in keeping this kind of disturbance aboard? Even without the rape and sexual assault allegations, what has Brown done to show that nothing new is going to pop up between now and the Super Bowl? How can anyone in good conscience believe that it'll be the proverbial smooth sailing until the next duck boat parade?
For now, players are going to have to keep answering questions about things that have nothing to do with that week's football game. And a case like this, unlike air pressure or cameras or behind-the-scenes drama, strays dangerously far from the football field. It's a story that any human with a heart and soul has to engage. It's hard to do so and still acknowledge that you have a job to do.
"I certainly don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the situation. It’s a very sensitive matter, don’t want to minimize it at all," said special teams captain Matthew Slater on Wednesday. "But that being said, I certainly don’t think that I should be speaking on it or I’m qualified to speak on it, because I don’t have any knowledge of the situation.
"I think as a leader of this team, I stand here before you guys speaking on behalf of the team, not necessarily on behalf of myself. It’s important that we try to focus on doing our job as professionals this week and try to go about our preparation and being ready for a game this Sunday."
Slater shouldn't even have to deal with this. He didn't need to deal with it on Sunday night, either, after a Brown-less Patriots team demolished the Steelers and looked explosive at wide receiver in the process. Now they have to field questions about this, and it feels wholly unnecessary.
"I don’t think anyone sits in here and doesn’t realize how serious that situation is and everything, but I think from a football standpoint, we’ve got to be prepared to go out there and play against the Dolphins on Sunday because that’s what our job calls for us to do,” said Devin McCourty. "I’m sure just like you guys, everyone in this locker room’s got different opinions and all of that. But when we come here our job is to prepare and play, no matter what’s going on."
Makes one wonder whether the team is better off cutting their losses now and trying to recoup Brown's guarantees, rather than withstanding the peaks and valleys as they come. If this team was headed for the Super Bowl anyway, then they may have more to gain in the long run from simply washing themselves of the whole situation. You may not care about the Patriots' public image, but the Krafts certainly do.
To be clear, releasing Brown is not akin to convicting him of rape. He deserves to have the legal process play out and for everyone to presume his innocence until proven guilty. That doesn't mean the Patriots need to let that all unfold while Brown lugs that baggage up and down the Gillette hallways, even if he's unpacking All-Pro stats and another Super Bowl.
Brown's behavior on the way out of Oakland invited speculation that he had real, human problems. Issues that go beyond being a high-maintenance professional athlete. These latest accusations certainly push further in that direction.
That is turbulence that Belichick decided was worth the roll of the dice. Two days in, the head coach got one of the most grave kinds of distractions imaginable. And it looks like he's about to weather yet another storm.
They probably will. They'll sail out of this one like the shrimping boat in Forrest Gump, surrounded by the wreckage of the rest of the NFL with all the treasure to themselves. But if they don't, we'll be left wondering if they might've been a little better prepared without Brown in tow.
And if they do - well, it would be fun to drop another banner. But they don't need Brown and everything that comes with him to make it happen.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].