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Why Good Organizations Know How To Handle Players Like Antonio Brown

Photo: Amanda Edwards (Getty)

Jimmy Farris spent six seasons in the NFL as a receiver with the 49ers, the Patriots, the Falcons, Washington, and the Jaguars. He won a ring in Super Bowl 36, when he signed with New England just before the playoffs. As an undrafted rookie in 2001, Farris had an up-close look at the dynamic between a supremely gifted wide receiver, Terrell Owens, and a coaching staff headed by Steve Mariucci that didn’t quite know how to handle him.

Farris remarked Thursday about some of the similarities between the Raiders’ handling of Antonio Brown and the Niners’ situation with T.O.:

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On Friday, before the Raiders released Antonio Brown and he was picked up by the Patriots, Farris spoke to Deadspin by phone. What follows is a transcript of that conversation that’s been lightly edited and condensed.

What’s your takeaway of what the Raiders did with AB?

I thought they did a really good job of handling the situation up until they fined him. Other than Mayock coming out and doing that “he’s all-in or he’s all-out” thing, I think that probably got under AB’s skin a little bit—he didn’t say anything about it at the time, but I feel like it’s kind of a shot that was unnecessary. Maybe [it was] Mayock kind of trying to prove, Hey, I’m the boss around here, or whatever. It was like a call-out, it was like a public ultimatum to a superstar. [Brown’s] whole thing wasn’t that he was not all-in, or he didn’t want to do it; he was just trying to get the helmet deal figured out.

And, look, people have different opinions about that. Was that even a legitimate thing for him to be taking it to the level that he was? Who knows, but that’s just him, okay? That’s Antonio Brown, and that’s what you’re dealing with. And you know that when you trade for him and you sign him to the big deal. So they publicly supported him. He was missing practices, and he was missing team activities doing that stuff. And you’ve got Gruden and everybody saying, “Hey, man, we support him,” and Gruden’s saying, “Hey, I like the fact that the guy’s standing up for something that he believes in, and when he’s out here, he’s great, and he brings the level of everybody around him up, and he practices his ass off”—all this stuff. So you get past all that.

You got the guy in the building, he’s working his ass off, he’s getting ready for Week 1, and then they turn around and fine him for missing some activities that were weeks ago, that when he was missing those activities you said you supported him. So that’s why I said it was petty because you’re telling him while he’s missing those activities, you’re saying, “Hey, man, we get it, just get this thing resolved and get your ass in here as soon as possible and let’s go to work.” So, he thinks, “Hey, they’ve got my back, they’re supporting me.” And then it’s fucking [five] days before the first game, you do this?

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That was my thing. All the drama and the issues and all that kind of stuff—you’d gotten past it. It happened in training camp. It was over. He’s in the building now, he’s here, like, let’s go full-steam ahead. And then, for whatever reason, some procedural reason or some reason—I really don’t know, Mayock felt like they needed to fine him. To set an example or what? I don’t know.

I understand the logic that stars are treated differently than, say, your practice squad guys. But he made himself such a pain in the ass in Pittsburgh that the Steelers traded him for pennies on the dollar and swallowed a big cap hit. And now, the perception from the outside is that he’s still up to some of his nonsense. He’s different, and you want to indulge that, but for the sake of the team, don’t you also need to draw a line? But I guess what you’re saying is that there was no need to draw the line because the problem already seemed to be solved.

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Exactly. That’s my point. Sure, you’ve got to draw a line somewhere with guys, right? But if the biggest problem you’ve got with the guy so far—let’s not make it more than it is, right? Yes, he’s a quote-unquote diva, or he’s a little eccentric or whatever. But if the biggest problem you’ve got with him so far is that he missed a couple of team activities, that’s not a problem. I asked some guy this on Twitter, just responding to one of the comments: How many team activities did Ezekiel Elliott miss during training camp? The answer is fucking all of them. He missed all of them. How many has Melvin Gordon missed? All of them. And how much did the Cowboys fine Zeke? They didn’t. They signed him to the richest running back contract in history.

So it’s up to the team how they handle this stuff, and teams know—or should know—the individual personalities of the superstars they’re dealing with, and what they can do and what they can’t. I keep referring back to Phil Jackson’s book [Eleven Rings] right now. Phil Jackson talked at length about how he treated all of his players differently. He had a different set of rules for Dennis Rodman than he did for Scottie Pippen. Because Rodman just is who he is, and you’re not going to get anything out of him if you try to lock him in his hotel room and put a security guard at the door. So Phil Jackson said, when Rodman needed to blow off steam, [he] told him to fucking go to Vegas in between Finals games and gamble and do his thing and then come back and be ready to play.

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So the point is that it’s clear to me—and I don’t know AB personally, I don’t know Mike Tomlin, I don’t know Jon Gruden, I don’t all these guys like personally, I haven’t worked with them—but the biggest problems that AB had in Pittsburgh were when he felt like they didn’t have his back, or people didn’t have his back, and people were blaming him for stuff that was Roethlisberger’s fault, and then that thing happened the final week of the season, kind of the final straw, was that whole deal where he skipped some practices. And, again, the way he tells it, Tomlin told him, “Hey, that’s cool, man, you’re not feeling well or whatever, go home, come back tomorrow, and be ready to go.” So he does that and then Tomlin publicly blasts him. So it’s clearly a trust thing with him. “You outed me,” or “you’re airing me out, you don’t have my back.” The reason why I just kind of take that point of view is because it’s the same thing that happened with T.O. and Mariucci.

That’s what I wanted to ask you about, because I know you were on the Niners’ practice squad with them. So what did you see?

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Here’s what’s funny about that. So, obviously, that happened in 2000, and then I got there in 2001. Terrell and I became really good friends throughout training camp, and when we broke training camp I stayed with him, and lived with him for about a month at his house in Fremont. We just spent a lot of time together, talking. He talked a lot to me about that whole rift between him and Mariucci. He said over and over again it came down to the fact that, when all that stuff happened, when he went to the star, the Cowboys star, and did the whole thing and whatever, that the coach and the organization basically threw him under the bus—they didn’t have his back. They suspended him, and Mariucci went out and publicly said, “That’s unacceptable, blah blah blah.” As far as Terrell was concerned, that was it. That was the end of that relationship. The reason why I have insight into that is because once the 49ers figured out that he and I were really close—it was funny to me because here I was, I’m a rookie on the practice squad, and about once a week, once every 10 days, I’d get a call on my cell phone from Mariucci, and we’d chat for a second, and then he’d just say, “Well, how’s T.O.? Has he said anything? How’s he feeling? What can we what can we do to get him to warm up?” [Through a spokesperson at the NFL Network, where he now works, Mariucci confirmed he called Farris at least once or twice because he knew Farris and T.O. were close, but that he wouldn’t say he called “frequently.” Mariucci added, via the spokesperson: “I don’t think we had cell phones back then!” Let the record show that cell phones were very much a thing in 2001.]

How did you feel about that? You were a rookie on the practice squad, and here’s your boss pressuring you to reveal some stuff about a teammate.

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To be honest, I appreciated the fact that that they saw me as somebody who had some insight and could be valuable and the whole deal. I didn’t mind that at all. I told Terrell, “Hey, Mariucci just called me.” And he was like, “What’d you tell him?” I would never tell Mariucci what Terrell wanted me to tell him, but the point is that you’re talking about guys who value certain things really strongly over others. And if you look throughout Terrell’s career, every time he had one of those problems it was because somebody chose something else or what-have-you over him, or put him in a position where he felt like they didn’t have his back, or they ostracized him or alienated him.

When Mariucci would call you, what would happen?

Yeah. There were times where I was at his house, or we were riding in the car. I remember one time we were on our way to a Kings game. We were driving to Sacramento to go to a Kings game—it was on one of the days off, like, on a Tuesday—and Mooch called me. And so I’m sitting next to Terrell, and the phone rings and I’m, like, “Oh, shit. This is Mooch.” So I answer the phone, and he listens to our conversation. And then I’d get off the phone and just say, “He’s just wondering if you want to talk, or what they can do.” And Terrell’s just, like, “I don’t want to talk to them.” And then he would say something funny, like, “Man, just tell them just to give me the ball,” or something like that—classic Terrell.

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Here’s the thing: He and T.O. did not speak. Some people find that odd when you’re talking about a player-coach relationship. But, I mean, they literally didn’t speak—not even on the field, not in practice, not on game day. I remember there being times where we’d been in practice, and the offense would run a play, T.O. would do something, and he’d be walking back, and Mariucci would just kind of say, “Hey, T.O., if we get a two-high safety look, make sure”—you know, whatever. And Terrell would just walk straight past him and not even acknowledge him, while he was talking to him.

I remember after a game, Mooch used to come around while guys were sitting on their stools and taking their cleats off or taking their tape off, Mooch would come around and shake everybody’s hand and say, “Hey, good game, good game,” and just kind of pat you on the head or whatever. And when he would come around to do that to Terrell, Terrell wouldn’t even look up, wouldn’t even acknowledge him.

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This is a whole season after that [Cowboys star thing] happened. That happened in 2000, and this is now midseason of 2001. And that was their relationship. So Mooch would just call me and say, “How’s Terrell feeling? What’s his mindset? What can we do? Do you think he wants to talk to anybody?” Just trying to kind of gauge where his head was at. It was almost like a couple that broke up, and the boyfriend’s calling the girlfriend’s friends saying, “Hey, what do you think she’s thinking? Should I try to talk to her or reach out to her?” Mooch was doing his best to try to engage Terrell, and try to mend the relationship, and Terrell just wasn’t interested.

The point is they mishandled it, initially, I think—the Niners mishandled it, initially. I remember being in college and seeing [the Cowboys star thing] happen and thinking, What’s the big deal? Everybody loved it, it made the game exciting. All the the guys in the locker room, a year later, we’d talk about it, like, “That shit was awesome!” We had T.O.’s back 100 percent on that one. And so everybody felt like it was stupid, what the organization did. Initially what they did, they mishandled it, but they tried to correct that. They were like, “Okay, this is the guy that we’re dealing with, so let’s just leave him alone, we’re not going to nitpick at him, we’re not going to fine him for dumb stuff.” And there were times where Terrell missed certain things here and there, and you just do not make a mountain out of a molehill in these situations.

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Jason La Canfora’s tweet that I originally responded to was he said he talked to somebody high up in the Steelers organization that said there’s a way to deal with personalities like AB, and that Mayock, being inexperienced, might not understand how to do that. That was my whole point. I agree 100 percent, because if Mayock knew what he was doing, he would know that you don’t fine AB over some bullshit like that, and make an issue out of something that’s not an issue.

The only problem the Raiders have had with him is that he’d been in and out of the building during training camp. First, he had his feet deal, which, a lot of people were, like, “What a dumbass.” No. This is what pro athletes do. He’s on vacation, he’s still working out, busting his ass, and he’s going and getting recovery and getting treatment, and so he has an accident. Yeah, it’s a weird deal, but I’ve got no problems with that for him. Then he’s in and out with the helmet deal—whatever. You get through all of that, all of the bullshit, you get through it, and now you’ve got him in the building, and he’s working his ass off, and he’s in the game plan, and he’s there every day, and then you have to blow the whole thing up by just doing something unnecessary.

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John Q. Public is so quick to say, “No, it’s bullshit. Treat everybody the same. If you’re not gonna show up for work ...” Look, the reality of pro sports is just not that. Superstars get treated differently. Jimmy Johnson has a famous quote, where there’s this famous thing about him cutting some guy for falling asleep in a meeting. And he said that a member of the media asked him, “Well, if Troy Aikman would have fallen asleep in the meeting would you have cut him?” And he said, “No, I would’ve walked over to him and nudged him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, Troy, wake up.’” There’s two sets of rules, and that’s just the way it is.

Here’s the deal: Everybody in the building of a pro sports organization, the number one goal is to win—first and foremost, above everything. And Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers in football. He’s going to help you win more football games with him than without him. So you trade for him. You know what you’re getting. You give him all this money. You make this commitment to him. So figure out how to deal with the personality, so that you get the most value possible out of him. Because what they’ve done now is basically just potentially cut off their nose to spite their face.

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Again, I’ve never been in a locker room with AB, right? So I don’t know what’s real, and what’s not. But what I hear from Raiders players is they’re like, “I don’t know about all that, man. I just know that when he’s out on the field, it makes us better, the way he practices, just his energy, his vibe. He just lifts everybody up. He’s a good teammate.” And it was the same way with Terrell. After the stuff happened in Philadelphia, and all this stuff, we’d listen to Skip Bayless and all these guys talk about how he’s a cancer and a team obliterator and all that type of stuff. From what I know, and what I saw in San Francisco, Terrell was one of the hardest-working guys in practice, and outside of practice. We used to sometimes go back to the facility at like 7, 8 o’clock at night and get a workout in. We’d go to practice, do the workout that the team had, go home, mess around, eat dinner, do whatever. And then we’d go back to the facility and get a second workout in. This guy was a hard practice player, he was a hard worker. He knew what he was doing. He set an example. He was trying to carry on the example that Jerry Rice had set for all of them. So the idea that he was a cancer in the locker room or a bad team guy or didn’t practice hard was just ridiculous.

How did the rest of the team feel about Terrell?

Loved him! This is another thing that’s such a misunderstood thing in pro sports. I watch all these dudes on ESPN and all this talking about, Oh this is such a distraction, Antonio Brown’s a distraction for the team. No. Listen: guys in the locker room do not care because everybody’s so concerned with themselves that they don’t have time to be worrying about what Antonio Brown’s doing. If I’m a receiver with the Raiders and somebody asked me, “Has it been a distraction with AB?” I’d be like, “Hell, no. AB hasn’t been here, and so guess who’s been getting his reps? Me. So, it’s not a distraction to me.” You honestly think that Antonio Brown not being in practice has been a distraction for any of these other guys? No. That’s all media-created stuff. I mean, there’s a point, probably, at which it’s like, okay, this is getting out of hand. But as far as just that stuff being a distraction? Nobody cares, man. As long as he’s there Week 1, ready to go, then we’re fine with it. And Antonio Brown was there Week 1, ready to go, and now there’s a distraction.

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You still talk to T.O. at all?

We don’t talk that much anymore. It’s just funny how those relationships go. What I watched happen with him through, I don’t know, a dozen or two dozen friends over the course of time we were friends, is the same thing that ended up happening with us. He just didn’t like people that ultimately would confront him on stuff, and say, “Hey, dude. You’re fucking up. This is bullshit.” I love Terrell. I mean, good dude. We had great times together. He made the beginning of my NFL career so memorable. We just don’t talk much anymore. But as soon as I heard this stuff with AB I was like, “I’ve been here before. I know exactly what’s going on.”

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AB is obviously a transcendent talent. But, at the same time, from the outside, it’s hard not to see that the Steelers reached a breaking point with him. How do you square the talent with what can be tolerated, when you’re trying to run a team and win games?

How long was he there? Seven, eight years?

Nine. He was drafted in 2010.

I’m sure that he had worn out his welcome there. You know I mean? Relationships with those types of guys do not last forever, for sure. The difference, though, in Pittsburgh was that he had started to have tension with players—like, him and [Ben] Roethlisberger had real tension. And him and [JuJu] Smith-Schuster had real tension. There was real stuff going on with players. And when you start having tension with other players that’s when it becomes a problem. That’s what happened to T.O. in Philadelphia. He had tension with [Donovan] McNabb and Hugh Douglas. But as long as it’s you against management, nobody gives a shit.

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I read all these comments on Twitter and social media: “Oh, nobody’s bigger than the team, and he’s being selfish, he needs to look out for the team.” Fuck that. The team doesn’t look out for you. When the team is ready to move on, or they think you make too much money, or you’re not giving them what they need, they cut you or trade you like that. They’re not loyal to you. They don’t honor the contract that they signed when it when it’s no longer beneficial to them. So this whole idea that these guys should be 100 percent just sold-out for the team is silly. If you have a problem with management, then most of the time the players in the locker room were, like, “We got you bro. Get your money,” or whatever. But as soon as it starts affecting guys in the locker room, now it’s a different conversation. And that’s what happened in Pittsburgh with AB.

The Steelers also had Le’Veon Bell getting thrown under the bus by teammates, including the team’s union reps.

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That’s when you knew that Le’Veon Bell was never going to play for the Steelers again. Once players started saying that kind of stuff, then you know it’s over, it’s an issue. And clearly Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in that locker room, the both of them together kind of doing some of that same stuff, it just had gotten toxic. Because you didn’t hear any Cowboys players saying anything about Zeke. You haven’t heard any Chargers saying anything about Melvin Gordon. You didn’t hear you didn’t hear any Texans guys saying anything about [Jadeveon] Clowney.

[Asked prior to the Raiders cutting Brown] Do you think this is irreparable for AB and the Raiders?

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I had heard apparently what Brown had said to Mayock on the field, and what he’d called him, and what had happened. And so when it gets to that level, I feel like that was, like, some next-level type stuff that is probably irreparable for a personal relationship and maybe even a working relationship.

Here’s the thing, though. Antonio Brown can still be a Raider this year, but it’s going to take the Raiders organization being the bigger person and probably doing some things that’ll cause them to take some hits in the media and around the league from people saying, “How many times are they going to let this guy walk on them, blah blah blah, and this and that.” Because Antonio Brown’s not going to back down. You’re not going to get Antonio Brown to come out first. He’s not gonna hold a press conference and say, “Look, I just want to address all this. I messed up. I made a mistake, I apologize,” and plead for his job, and all that kind of stuff. It’s not gonna happen. The Raiders are going to have to come out and say hey, We think Antonio is a great player. We’ve we’ve got plans for him to be a part of us. Our team this year blah blah blah. And then after that, then you might get AB to say, “Hey, man. We both made mistakes. My bad. I apologize. I let my most get the best of me. I’m locked in, I’m ready to go, let’s do this.” But it’s going to take them being the bigger person first. And if they’re willing to do that, then I think it can possibly be repaired.

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It’s not good. What does this say to all the young kids out there? It’s bad. Okay? It’s not good. This is not a teaching moment for kids; it’s not gonna be a teaching moment for Fortune 500 companies on how to deal with disgruntled employees—like, it’s bad. But if you want to resolve it in a way that gets AB in the building and gives you the best chance to win football games, then it’s going to take the Raiders coming out first, being the bigger person, and trying to repair it. [Brown did offer a brief apology at a presser a few hours after our conversation, but before he was cut. When I texted Farris to ask about it, he replied, “Never apologized specifically to Mayock lol.”]

I’ve been on teams where players argue with coaches all the time, but I never heard somebody kind of take it there, playing the race card on him. And that to me honestly says that there’s got to be other things just going on with AB in general. Everybody gets pissed. Everybody motherfucks a coach or something at some point time. But he was obviously pissed at Mayock about the all-in or all-out thing, for sure. As I saw that, I was, like, “Oh, no. Don’t do that to that guy.” Because if you poke him, he will hit back every time. He’s not a Tom Brady that’s going to go up and just say, “Ah, well. They’ve got their opinion, their job to do.” Like, he’s not going to handle it that way. I still didn’t believe that whole thing was enough for him. He’s got a whole different level of anger about something that’s unresolved. That’s an outburst, man. That’s bad.

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To put a bow on the whole thing, the point is you’re dealing with somebody different, and a lot of superstars are really, really different. And, yes, the money and the superstardom and the fame and everything changes people and causes them to act different than they did when they were a rookie sixth-round draft pick. Yes, that’s true. All the shit that people want to believe that shouldn’t happen—it happens. These guys get egos and all this type of stuff. So you’re dealing with a guy that’s difficult, and normal rules don’t apply, normal approaches to resolving issues don’t work. So if you want the relationship to work and if you want to get the value out of him for what you invested in him, then you’re going to have to take a different approach. You’re going to have to, like I said, be the bigger person, swallow some pride, and it’s going to be on you, the Raiders organization, to make it work. And that’s it. And if you want to do it, then do it. And you know there’s probably still going to be some more shit that happens throughout the season. But he’s going to catch 110 [balls] and make the Pro Bowl and you guys might be in an AFC championship game.

Or don’t, and cut off your nose to spite your face and prove how big your balls are. And go out and play with some receivers that nobody knows and a tight end that nobody knows and a running back nobody knows, and have a mediocre offense.

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About the author

Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.