Bucs make it official: terminate Antonio Brown’s contract

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) gestures to the crowd as he leaves the field while his team’s offense is on the field against the New York Jets during the third quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. Brown left the game and did not return. (Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media via AP)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially severed ties with Antonio Brown, terminating the contract of the mercurial receiver while also contradicting the player’s claim that he was fired in the middle of a game for not playing through an ankle injury.

Coach Bruce Arians said Thursday that Brown was upset that he was not being targeted enough in the opening half of last Sunday’s game against the New York Jets and that the situation evolved to a boiling point in the third quarter.

“At no point and time during that game did he ever ask for the trainer or doctor about his ankle. That’s the normal protocol. … I was never notified of it,” Arians said, discussing the circumstances of Brown’s bizarre exit in detail for the first time publicly.

“He was very upset at halftime about who was getting targeted. We got that calmed down. Players took care of that,” the coach added. “It started again on the sideline. We called the personnel group that he had played in the entire game. He refused to go in the game.”

Arians said when he became aware of the situation, he went to Brown to ask “what’s going on?”

The coach said Brown responded “I ain’t playing … I ain’t getting the ball.”

“That’s when I said you’re done. Get out of here. That’s the end of it. We are working on Carolina,” Arians said, referring to this week’s opponent. “That’s the end of the story. Hopefully it ends today.”

The Bucs announced Brown’s contract was terminated one day after the receiver broke his silence on the matter, alleging in a statement released by the player’s attorney that Arians cut him on the spot because Brown declined to re-enter the game because he was too injured to continue playing.

“You can’t force a player to play. They have that choice. It’s their body,” Arians said. “He decided to play.”

Brown alleged a coverup.

“I didn’t quit. I was cut. I didn’t walk away from my brothers. I was thrown out,” the receiver’s statement said.

“Being fired on the sideline for having a painful injury was bad enough. Then came their ‘spin.’ Coach denied on national television that he knew about my ankle. That’s 100% inaccurate,” Brown added. “Not only did he know I missed several games with the injury, he and I exchanged texts days before the game where he clearly acknowledged my injury.”

Brown, who has a long history of troubled behavior on and off the field, including being accused by two women of sexual assault — one said he raped her — removed his jersey, shoulder pads, undershirt and gloves before leaving the sideline.

The receiver, who began his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, tossed some of his gear into the stands, did some jumping jacks and waved to fans at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., as he headed to the locker room.

“While Antonio did receive treatment on his ankle and was listed on the injury report the week leading up to last Sunday’s game, he was cleared to play by our medical team prior to the start of the game and at no point during the game did he indicate to our medical personnel that he could not play,” the Bucs said in a statement.

“We have attempted, multiple times throughout this week, to schedule an evaluation by an outside orthopedic specialist, yet Antonio has not complied,” the statement added. “Maintaining the health and wellness of our players is of the utmost importance to our organization.”

While not specifying which ankle was hurt, Brown — through the statement released by attorney Sean Burstyn — said an MRI performed Monday showed broken bone fragments, a ligament tear and cartilage loss “which are beyond painful. You can see the bone bulging from the outside.”

Despite saying after the game that Brown was no longer a part of the defending Super Bowl champions, the 33-year-old receiver had remained on the roster. Wednesday’s injury report noted Brown’s absence from practice was “not injury related — personal.”

NFL Players Association President and Browns center JC Tretter said the union will investigate Brown’s claims.

“It’s something, you don’t want to hear that,” he said Thursday on a Zoom call with Cleveland reporters. “I won’t get too much into individual person’s cases, it’s kind of always our policy, but it’s something we definitely have to look into and see what’s going on down there.”

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady was one of the players who supported the decision to sign Brown in October 2020 as the receiver was nearing the end of serving an eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

“I think there’s lot of, obviously, personal feelings. I don’t really think this is the week to discuss it, though,” Brady said after practice Thursday, reiterating that the team is focused on preparing for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Panthers.

“I’m just going to do the best I can as the quarterback of the team, try to put together a great week and finish strong,” Brady added. “You deal with different things during the course of a season. That’s what we’re doing this week.”

Brown injured his ankle during a victory at Philadelphia in mid-October and didn’t play again until Dec. 26 against Carolina, a two-month stretch that included a NFL-imposed, three-game suspension for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status.

The receiver joined the Bucs midway through last season, with Arians saying at the time that there would be zero tolerance for the type of incidents that had derailed Brown’s career in the past.

He helped Tampa Bay win its first Super Bowl title in nearly two decades last February and returned this season on a one-year, $3.1 million contract that could have been worth up to twice that with incentives.

Brown appeared in seven games this season, finishing with 42 receptions for 545 yards and four touchdowns. His streak of 144 consecutive games with at least one reception is the longest in the league among active players.

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AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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