Is Antonio Brown a Hall of Famer?

antonio brown, NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s Antonio Brown Pro Football Hall of Fame debate time! And you know what that means: we must start with an impassioned plea to stay as close to the topic as possible in the comment thread, take a deep breath before posting, respect the feelings and opinions of others, and remember that nobody’s views on the former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro brands them forever as society’s greatest monster.

Let’s take things talking point by talking point.

Statistically, Antonio Brown is Worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

That should be obvious, but it’s worth laying down parameters when discussing someone as polarizing as Brown.

Brown is NOT a clear-cut first-ballot selection based on his statistics, though some will inevitably claim he is. His statistical case and Pro Bowl/All-Pro count line up roughly with those of Andre Johnson, who is currently in the finalist queue, and contemporaries such as Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins, who will reach the ballot process at the same time as Brown.

Brown’s case is also broadly similar to that of Calvin Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2021. As I often note, voters I spoke to at the time made it clear that they needed to hear Megatron’s case before waving him through on the first ballot, not because they thought he was undeserving but because they have so many candidates to prioritize and were reluctant to let someone cut the line who wasn’t Peyton Manning-level qualified.

So a baggage-free Brown would probably be a Hall of Fame “queue” guy. But who would be all that interested in the case of a baggage-free Brown?

Brown’s Football-Related Transgressions Absolutely Deserve Consideration and Debate by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee

As is often restated here at Walkthrough, voters are forbidden from taking off-field misconduct into consideration when assessing PFHoF cases. But voters ARE both allowed and expected to consider whether a candidate upheld the Hall’s stated values of “courage, dedication, vision, fair play, integrity, and excellence” within the realm of their football-related activities.

Dedication and integrity are thorny issues for a player who was benched by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the heat of a playoff chase, walked away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the middle of a game just before the playoffs, and resorted to some extremely juvenile and insubordinate behavior to force his release from the then-Oakland Raiders. (Here’s a brief Antonio Brown timeline/refresher.)

There are those who argue that none of Brown’s beefs with various teams/coaches/organizations should matter. I would argue that if throwing a tantrum and going AWOL on Tom Brady and Bruce Arians just before the playoffs start doesn’t matter, then nothing matters, football is all just a silly soap opera, and why even engage in a debate about whether or not someone gets a little statue in some tourist attraction off I-77?

Brown’s deeds may not ultimately exclude him, but it’s absurd to insist that they should not even be admissible as evidence against him.

Brown’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Candidacy is Broadly Similar to Terrell Owens’

Owens, you may recall, stalled at the finalist stage for two years because a small but vocal bloc of voters fought hard for his exclusion. That bloc relented when Randy Moss reached the ballot; from what I gathered, the hardliners softened a bit in the face of public opinion and/or didn’t feel strongly enough about their cause to let Moss leapfrog over Owens.

I have zero problem with forcing Owens to wait a few years, like a sinner scrubbing off some venial sins in purgatory or a smart aleck forced to clap erasers after school for a few minutes. Yet, to this day, even mentioning Owens here or on Twitter prompts a knee-jerk response along the lines of Those such-‘n’-such voters made him wait two years cuz they didn’t like him. Of course, a) individuals such as John Lynch, whom voters personally love often wait for many more years; and b) it’s not the voters Owens ticked off, but his teammates and some very influential coaches.

Anyway, T.O. sets a general precedent for a pain-in-the-butt wide receiver getting into the Hall of Fame far easier than, say, a middle linebacker who didn’t scowl quite as menacingly as Bill Parcells thought he should.

That Said, Brown is not Nearly as Qualified a Candidate as Owens, and His Transgressions are Far Worse

Owens retired second on the all-time receiving yardage list and third on the receiving touchdowns list. Brown will retire outside the top 20 in both categories if he fails to play another down of football (which is likely). Even a scandal-free AB could have ended up in a logjam with Julio and Nuk that kept him in the finalist queue for several years if, say, AB’s career was truncated by injuries instead of suspensions and scandals.

Owens’ hijinks never boiled over into public in-season insubordination or desertion against his coaches or organizations. Quite the contrary: his quick return from an ACL injury to help the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season ultimately held more weight with most voters than the situps-in-the-driveway and beef with Donovan McNabb in 2005. Brown doesn’t really have any late-career heroics on a scale to counterbalance scandals that impacted four separate organizations; I can’t imagine voters pointing to his 2020 season and saying, “Golly, Tom Brady would have just been lost without that guy.”

So while examining Owens’ case is informative when discussing Brown, it’s important to remember that Brown faces a tougher climb for two separate reasons.

Beyond T.O., There’s Precedent for Players and Individuals with Serious ‘Football Sins’ Being Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Paul Hornung served a one-year gambling suspension in 1963 but was inducted in 1986. Alex Karras was suspended in the same 1963 scandal but was inducted by the Centennial Committee in 2020. Gambling on NFL games seems like a rather direct violation of fair play and integrity values of the PFHoF, and both players were barred from Canton for decades. But the Seniors and Centennial committees eventually forgave both Hornung and Karras, who (it must be noted) grew into charming elder statesmen of the game/beloved Hollywood personalities as the decades went on.

Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue spent much of his tenure declaring that concussions were no biggie despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary. So much for vision, courage, and integrity. Some members of the committee were eager to enshrine Tagliabue for years, for whatever reason, but they chose to lay low while he was the villain in a Will Smith movie. Like Karras, Tagliabue snuck in with the Centennial Class.

If a player who gambled on NFL games and a commissioner who said “concussions, shmuckussions” in the 1990s can get into the Hall of Fame, a guy who posted private phone conversations with Jon Gruden on social media has a pretty fair shot.

Memories of Antonio Brown’s Transgressions Will Fade Over Time

That’s what happened with Hornung and Karras. It happened with T.O. to a degree. Fans forget just about everything except rings and highlights that make for clickable videos, while stat lines remain on Pro Football Reference forever. Stories of minor past misdeeds which are remembered become charming folktales.

Even when Brown was feuding with Gruden and the Raiders, the story was being spun in real time by folks who should have known better as an almost heroic or admirable act of civil disobedience: AB just wants to control his own fate by forcing his release, and more power to him! A few years from now, AB’s exit from the Raiders will probably be conflated with Gruden’s email scandal: Brown was protesting Gruden’s racism, IIRC, right? His Steelers exit in 2018 is hard to find on the stat sheet and may already be forgotten: He caught 15 touchdown passes, so how can you say he hurt his team? Brown did so little for the 2021 Buccaneers that the fact that he stormed off the sideline in a midgame huff in Week 17 will probably also become a footnote.

Brown can help his legacy in this respect by a) not getting involved in any more beefs, scandals, or serious legal problems, on the field or off; b) not trying to justify his 2018-to-2021 football-related misdeeds with one of his dog-ate-my-homework tales; and c) perhaps playing a scandal-free season or two.

Point a) should be self-explanatory; the off-field stuff matters because it will be hard for the public and voters to forget any of Brown’s past mistakes if he keeps making new ones.

Point b) is worth noting because AB tried to turn going AWOL from the Buccaneers into a disagreement about playing through an injury, but he has cried wolf a little too often (and sloppily) at this point; even folks with faulty BS detectors and a habit of taking the players’ side in everything have figured out that Brown has an elastic relationship with facts. A retirement interview tour where he claims everything was the fault of Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock, Bruce Arians, Roger Goodell and society itself won’t endear him to the public or voters. Probably.

Point c) matters because two empty-calorie years as, say, the Bills’ WR4 would push all of Brown’s issues further back into history by the time his case comes before the selection committee. In fact, Brown was cruising along toward erasing most of the Steelers/Raiders stuff until the moment he went ham behind the end zone last January. The further we get from 2019, the more likely the typical fan will be to think that Brown was just another high-maintenance rapscallion who was just too real for the stuffy establishment and those fogey voters. Most of those fogeys will only fly so far in the face of public opinion.

Antonio Brown’s Candidacy Will Be Cast by Some Folks as a Racial Issue

Specifically, it will be cast by some folks with whom I agree on most sociopolitical topics as a racial issue.

I’m sensitive to how racial biases permeate coverage of and attitudes toward NFL players, particularly brash, demonstrative black wide receivers. I recognize that there’s a sliding scale of what’s laudable, tolerable, and unforgivable based on implicit bias in football and elsewhere. Paul Hornung’s nickname was “The Golden Boy,” if you need the point underlined.

I also respect righteous zeal in the face of racism in all its forms and a hunger/thirst for justice. But friends and colleagues, I humbly suggest that there are much worthier outlets for that such zeal than Antonio Brown’s freakin’ Hall of Fame candidacy.

None of this is likely to sway the voters, who get accused of racism for passing on Owens and of stupidity when passing on Zach Thomas and Randy Gradishar. But if Brown and Julian Edelman somehow end up on the same ballot … hoo-boy, I won’t be doing any talk radio that month!

Antonio Brown’s Candidacy Will Be Cast by Some Folks as a Mental Health Issue

Charles Haley was considered a clubhouse malcontent for much of his playing career, and that trapped him in the semifinalist/finalist queue for a decade. Increased awareness of Haley’s bipolar disorder made both voters and the old coaches/teammates who provide endorsements more sympathetic to Haley’s case, leading to his 2015 enshrinement.

Brown has already been diagnosed with all sorts of disorders by Doctor Twitter. Again, I’m sympathetic to the possibility that there appears to be something else going on, and voters will be too. But Doctor Twitter’s diagnosis doesn’t count, and it remains possible to be a selfish, childish egomaniac without necessarily having an underlying medical reason for it.

For now, let’s cross the bridge of Brown’s potential mental illness issues when he crosses it.

Antonio Brown’s Hall of Fame Endorsements Will Probably Be … Interesting

It doesn’t sound like Mike Tomlin will go to bat for Brown very hard. Brown shouldn’t expect Bruce Arians to make cold calls to voters, either. Bill Belichick, who can make or break candidacies with a grunt, doesn’t like being embarrassed. (I haven’t mentioned Brown’s Patriots minute much because off-field incidents don’t count, and because AB cannot really be faulted for the Patriots taking such a foolish risk on him at that moment.) Jon Gruden may be anathema in the public NFL sphere, but voters haven’t lost his number and still value his opinions on some matters.

Tom Brady may go to bat for Brown, but that will already be priced into the evaluations of voters. Opposing defenders will praise AB, but no one questions how hard he was to cover. Ben Roethlisberger? Remember that players voted for JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Steelers team MVP over AB in 2018, and that whole Steelers team had an “every man for himself” vibe.

Terrell Owens had some former teammates who vouched for him, and eventually earned a tepid public endorsement from Bill Parcells. But again, we’re talking about a different cat who did different things in team headquarters and on game day.

Antonio Brown Will Probably Eventually Be Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

My guess about the timeline:

  • Brown becomes a finalist on the first ballot because voters want his case heard by the committee.
  • Brown does not get in on the first few ballots, after fierce debate.
  • Some anti-AB hardliners soften after Julio Jones and some other contemporary receivers are inducted.
  • Public sentiment will turn increasingly toward Brown as the events of the last few years get swallowed by a memory hole. Some old teammates and coaches will start to chuckle or grow philosophical about incidents that currently make them seethe.
  • After four or five years on the ballot, voters will tire of the constant committee arguments and criticism from the Internet and will try to slide him onto a ballot where he’s unlikely to be the headliner.

My Own Opinion on Antonio Brown

I have a big, big problem with people who just walk the hell off the job.

I’m not talking about social protests or job actions. Protests and job actions are understandable, even commendable, which is why the Internet hivemind worked so hard to recast Brown’s Raiders nonsense as some sort of champion-of-the-common-man protest. But storming off in a huff when others are counting on you? That’s immature and irresponsible, whether you’re a fry cook, a teacher, a sportswriter or a wide receiver. Do it once and it reflects poorly on you. Do it multiple times and it reflects accurately upon you. The person who walks off the job in a snit is saying they don’t care about their colleagues, customers, readers, students, coaches, bosses or even the value and meaning of the work they do and their profession/industry.

And I’ll be damned if I’m supposed to go to bat for anyone who thinks that way.

I hate the idea that we’re obligated to bestow honors on a player just because they checked enough boxes on some statistical to-do list. I reject the suggestion that we should handwave away actions directly detrimental to multiple teams because a guy had a string of 100-catch seasons and lots of cool highlights. I resent the supposition that it would be some miscarriage of justice to deny Brown after I have spent years writing about how Steve Atwater, Sam Mills and Tony Boselli, not to mention Randy Gradishar, Sterling Sharpe, Roger Craig and others —men who gave every drop of sweat they had to the sport — got caught in logjams and numbers games. And I loathe, very personally, the bellicose, self-indulgent ignorance (for want of a better term) that surrounds internet Hall of Fame arguments: AB is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and you’re an idiot, a-hole, or worse for daring to suggest otherwise.

So I would be pleased to see Antonio Brown quietly disappear into an obscure private life (while paying every debt to society or to individuals he may owe), never to be written about again.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen if he gets passed over every year. Antonio Brown Snubbed is just too clickable a headline. So is Let’s Relive What a Buttmunch AB Was. And yes, so is Let’s Stroke Our Beards and Discuss Both Sides. Articles like this one, which are very popular and generate lots of attention for Football Outsiders, are never written about players who have already been enshrined. A snubbed near-Hall of Famer is a cause celebre. An actual Hall of Famer — if he hasn’t gone on to coaching, the booth or some successful post-football endeavor — is a guy walking around Super Bowl radio row in a gold jacket hawking his boilerplate memoir or some male-enhancement product.

Therefore, I hope Antonio Brown gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on an early ballot. O.J. Simpson’s there, after all. So are Tagliabue, Hornung and Karras, and lots of guys who showed up for games still drunk or with white powder on their upper lips. Here’s your bust, make your speech, now go find out how much your autograph is worth at card shows.

Would Brown’s enshrinement diminish the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Incrementally. Would it be unfair to other candidates with far more respect for the game, the fans and themselves? Sure. But football is a much better sport to watch, talk about and write about without constant conversations about Antonio Brown.

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