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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots show no sign of a conscience and even less care for decorum.
Not that we didn’t already know this, what with Deflategate, spying and those visitor headsets that always seem to malfunction in Foxborough. But Belichick’s prominent use of Antonio Brown on Sunday left no doubt where his moral compass points: straight up, by way of his middle finger.
Anyone who was uncomfortable with the optics of Brown playing — and in a significant role, tying for a team-high four catches — five days after his former trainer sued him while alleging sexual assault and rape, well, that’s not Belichick and the Patriots’ problem. Winning is all the matters, the 43-0 final score against the Miami Dolphins justifying any means.
“I’ll talk about the game,” Belichick said, tersely, when he was asked afterward if the nature of the allegations against Brown gave him any pause in deciding to play him. “I’ve already commented about that. Not going to say anymore.”
Actually, what Belichick has said amounts to a whole lot of nothing. When he was asked about the lawsuit earlier in the week, Belichick said the Patriots were “taking it very seriously” but he wasn’t going to answer questions. Pressed, he would say only that the Patriots were “working on Miami” and taking it “one day at a time.”
Brown wasn’t any more illuminating, his locker already cleared out and the tape with his name on it gone by the time the media was allowed into the Patriots locker room.
It was easy, and understandable, to say the NFL should have put Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list after Britney Taylor filed her lawsuit Tuesday night. The NFL’s disregard for women is as consistent as it is disappointing, and the idea of the league giving yet another player yet another pass is infuriating.
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But that view was also uninformed. A player can only be placed on the exempt list if there are criminal charges, which there aren’t in this case, or “when an investigation leads the commissioner to believe that a player might have violated this policy.”
That wording is key.
The NFL hasn’t even had the chance to talk with Taylor yet. There are no videos or photos to corroborate her claims, and the text messages cited in the lawsuit, while disturbing and not a good reflection on Brown, have not been authenticated publicly.
That doesn’t mean Taylor’s claims are without merit, and it doesn’t mean Brown is in the clear. It means the investigation is still in its infancy, which left the NFL little choice but to allow Brown to play against the Dolphins.
The Patriots, however, are a different story. With 53 players on a roster and only 11 on the field at a time, tough decisions on who plays and who doesn’t are made all the time. The Patriots easily could have made Brown inactive, claiming he hadn’t had enough time to learn the offense. If they didn’t want to do that, they could have made him a non-factor, using him sparingly and not calling plays for him.
It’s not as if they needed him, either. The Dolphins are so hapless they can barely call themselves an NFL team, and New England could have left half its team home and still won. Handily.
That isn’t the “Patriot way,” however. New England made Brown a prominent part of its game plan for the same reason it signed him after his brief but incendiary circus act in Oakland: Because it can, and because Belichick wants to remind everyone that he’s the smartest guy in the room.
NFL Network reported before the game that Patriots owner Robert Kraft never would have signed off on Brown’s acquisition if the team had known about Taylor’s allegations. But it’s easy to say that now, and Kraft’s offended sensibilities fall flat in light of what the Patriots actually did.
On the second play of the game, there was Brown, trotting onto the field to a mixture of boos and cheers. (In fairness, it was hard to tell what was being directed at whom, given all the New England fans at the stadium and the Dolphins’ general ineptitude.)
Seconds later, Tom Brady found Brown for an 18-yard gain up the middle.
“No,” Belichick said when asked if that was intentional. “We run the offense. (Brady) threw the ball to the guy that’s open. Haven’t changed that in 20 years.”
Uh-huh. Just as there was no hidden message in sending Brady back out with the Patriots up 37 on a hot, humid day and then going deep. Other than plain old malevolence, of course.
It wasn’t lost on anyone that New England had four pass plays in that first scoring drive and Brown was the recipient of three of them. On the fourth, a Brady incompletion, Brown drew a defensive holding call on Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Or that, when Brady let loose after a heavy dose of run plays on the third possession, he found Brown for the 20-yard touchdown. Brown celebrated by jumping into the stands, Lambeau Leap-style, though he misjudged and fell all the way into the seats.
No matter, as a couple of Patriots fans gave him a boost back up. When Brown returned to the field, he got another boost, this one in the form of a big hug from Brady in full view of the cameras.
“I don’t make any of those decisions,” Brady said when asked about the optics of Brown playing. “I just show up and do my job.”
Of course. The Patriots have never taken ownership or responsibility for their misdeeds, so expecting that they’d consider the broader impact of their actions now was always going to be too much.
The Patriots long ago made it clear that there is no right or wrong in New England. Only wins.
Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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