The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a gamble, there’s no other way to put it. Flushed with a wealth of talent across the offensive skill positions, and a Hall of Fame quarterback capable of leading that group to near perfection, the Bucs made one risky acquisition as a luxury-add to a team that should have already been in Super Bowl contention in Antonio Brown.
Talented? Without question. Best at his position? Maybe at one point. The multiple Pro Bowler and All-Pro legend has elevated entire offenses for seasons on end with high-volume years that could wind up with him getting into Canton when all is said and done. But after bouncing around teams, and minimal contributions last year, it may be fair to ask — is the unmistakable talent from past years worth the litany of off the field issues that could end up as a distraction on an otherwise ready-made championship contender?
Even if character concerns don’t make themselves seen in the Tampa Bay locker room (a massive ‘if’), even if Brown’s off-the-field issues don’t keep him from playing at all as they did in 2019 (an even bigger ‘if’), it might still be fair to ask — after joining a brand new team with a brand new offense in the middle of the season, after now playing a combined three NFL games over the last two seasons, just how much help is Antonio Brown going to be for the Buccaneers?
Whether the move to add Brown will be for better or worse is yet to be seen, but the reasons why they made that move were clear — to bring in one of the most talented, most productive wide receivers of the last two decades, maybe of all time.
Tampa Bay without a doubt already had a strong group of wide receivers, from Chris Godwin to Mike Evans to the recent Fantasy Football sleeper darling Scotty Miller. But a player like Brown joining that group would be enough to make the team’s starting receivers beyond anything the league has ever seen.
Arguing against Brown’s football legacy would be impossible. For six straight other-worldly seasons, from 2013 to 2018, Brown put together a legacy that 99% of the NFL’s receivers wouldn’t touch if they got 20 seasons in their prime to do so. Six Pro Bowl’s, four All-Pro teams, three seasons over 1,500 receiving yards, over 100 catches in all six of those years, and a grand total of 67 receiving touchdowns — more than all but 50 pass-catchers over the course of their NFL careers.
Brown at his absolute peak is a force of nature. Not only does he produce at an elite level for himself, but the mere presence of mid-2010’s Brown was enough to command attention from the entire offense, opening things up in the passing game for other receivers. It led to JuJu Smith Schuester’s only two seasons of over 900 yards when the two shared a field on the Steelers.
But here’s the problem; Antonio Brown isn’t in his prime — he’s 32. Maybe Brown, one of the most talented receivers of football’s modern era, can transcend age, but history tells us that the climb to elite so late in a career is steeper than most anyone can handle.
Of the 46 seasons over the course of NFL history where a receiver managed over 1,500 yards, only eight came from receivers in their 30s, and only one came from a receiver at Brown’s age in Jerry Rice’s historic 1995 campaign.
It’s a similar story for yards per game. Only 45 times in NFL history has a player averaged over 100 receiving yards per game and only five times have they come from players over the age of 29, and just twice from players at or over Brown’s age — Rice, again in 1995, and Don Maynard back in 1967.
History, in terms of football, is oftentimes stupid. There was a time decades ago where the mere thought of a quarterback throwing for 40 touchdowns in a season would be deemed witchcraft, but times change. Athletes are faster, stronger, and built to thrive late into their careers in a way that was once unheard of.
But even in the modern era, dominant receiving seasons from receivers out of their 20’s are few and far between. Of those eight seasons of over 1,500+ yards from players in their 30s, just three have come in the last 15 years. And of the five seasons of over 100 yards per game from 30+ receivers, you have to go back to 2002 to find the last time a year like that happened, back when Marvin Harrison reached that feat.
History is actively working against Antonio Brown being the receiver that he once was, as is inexperience. Even if he does have that elite level of play somewhere in him, he’ll have to find it quickly while shaking off some rust, having played in only three games in the last two seasons. And while getting back into game-shape, Brown will have to be responsible for learning the in’s and out’s of his fourth new offense since 2018.
Expecting Brown to be Antonio Brown for the Buccaneers, a receiver of historic production who can create space and opportunities for the other faces in a pass-catching corps, is a fool’s errand. The odds of another truly spectacular season are stacked too high. But Brown doesn’t need to be Antonio Brown in 2020, he can just be pretty good, which he could still be more than capable of.
Even when Brown hit the age of 30 in 2018, the age where many receivers tend to experience a drop-off in production, he still managed to power the Steelers offense to extraordinary heights. Not only did Brown end the year with nearly 1,300 yards, a Pro Bowl invite, and a career-high and league-leading 15 receiving touchdowns, but he helped drive Pittsburgh to the fourth-ranked passing offense in the league.
But what might be most impressive of Brown’s 2018 campaign is the idea that he was producing at an elite level, all while demanding the attention of the defense — evidenced by Smith-Schuester’s breakout season that he has not come close to matching since Brown’s departure.
In 2020, the roles might be reversed with the Buccaneers. Players like Godwin and Evans are good enough to attract attention away from Brown, letting him show whatever skill he has left without the spotlight.
In the Buccaneers’ last game, one against the division-rival Panthers, Brown did show that he might have something left in the tank, even at 32. He ended the game leading the team in catches with seven, and walking away with 69 yards, Brown ended his day showing that he can still be a key part of Tampa Bay’s offense heading forward in the season.
Antonio Brown, for better or worse (and oftentimes worse), is who he is at this point. He’s a 32-year-old receiver, in a league that has shown even the greats struggle once they hit the age of 30. He’s a guy that has been out of the game for a while, and has bounced from team to team, offense to offense, and quarterback to quarterback. He’s a guy that, considering everything he represents off the field and in the locker room, is at risk of being off the team and out of the league at a moment’s notice.
The Buccaneers made a gamble, there really is no other way to put it. They added an aging, rusty, negative presence and sure-fire distraction to a receiving group that already represented the strength of the Buccaneers offense. Expecting him to be elite, at this point, is foolish. Expecting him to be a vocal leader, at this point, is even more so.
But if all Tampa Bay wanted was a good player, someone who can contribute a handful of catches for a chunk of yards on weekly basis, they probably have their guy in Brown.
Just don’t expect anything more than that. Just don’t expect Antonio Brown to be Antonio Brown anymore.