Barber: Antonio Brown’s feet are holding Raiders back

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NAPA

Antonio Brown figures to be a major character on “Hard Knocks,” HBO’s training camp documentary series, this summer. Episode 1 featured him working out with his personal trainer, ascending over Napa Valley in a hot air balloon and hanging out with his adorable children, one of whom asked the wide receiver at a camp practice, “Where’s Roethlisberger?”

Ben Roethlisberger is not practicing behind the Napa Valley Marriott, because he is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brown’s former team. And Brown is not practicing with the Raiders right now, because — well, it’s a weird story.

Let’s just say that if Brown is a “Hard Knocks” star, he’s a minor character on the field. An extra, really, relegated to background scenes.

Brown has made attempts to participate. He tried to fight through pain to practice one day last week. But, as detailed on the HBO show, Raiders head trainer H. Rod Martin suggested the team dial down Brown’s participation because, competitor that he is, he simply doesn’t know how to go three-quarters speed.

Brown’s status on the Non-Football Injury list has been a source of buzz since the Raiders opened camp on July 27. From the start, though, Raiders coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock said it was no big deal. That Brown simply had sore feet. That he’d be back any day.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and Brown remains sidelined. And now we know the backstory.

As first reported by former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, co-host of a podcast called PFT Live, and filled out by ESPN and other outlets, Brown’s condition stems from a visit to a cryotherapy chamber in France. Pro tip: Be wary of any method of therapy that begins with the word “cry.”

According to US Cryotherapy, their service involves stepping into an ultra-cold-air chamber that reduces skin temperature between 30 and 45 degrees in just a few minutes. It’s like a turbo version of the old ice tub. The company claims that cryotherapy enhances motion in the muscles and joints, increases blood flow, rejuvenates the body, skin and mind, and reduces stagnant blood within the muscle tissue.

Just one problem in Antonio Brown’s case: Somehow, he emerged from the chamber with the bottoms of his feet badly burned. Are you supposed to wear shoes? Was there a flaw in the machine? I don’t know. But the best wide receiver in the NFL now has a case of something very similar to frostbite on the soles of both feet.

Which explains why, when Brown posted a photo of his mangled extremities on Instagram last Saturday, they looked like the feet of Ernest Shackleton on Day 604 of the disastrous expedition of the Endurance, the flesh yellowed and peeling away.

Perhaps Brown should have worked out with Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman instead. Looking at the Los Angeles roster during the teams’ joint practice Wednesday, I noticed that Robey-Coleman is from Frostproof, Florida.

Wait a minute, am I making jokes about an athlete’s medical condition? That goes against my personal code of conduct. Certainly, there is nothing funny about the pain Brown is experiencing. But his self-inflicted wounds are so off the wall, it’s hard not to be cynical about them.

Frostbitegate speaks to a trend in modern sports. More and more elite athletes are taking fitness and recovery into their own hands. Can you blame them? In the final analysis, every sports team values its players primarily as assets. The athletes have learned to ask for independent medical opinions, and to tailor their own conditioning.

But it can go off the rails for someone like Antonio Brown, who seems willing to try almost anything to sate his obsessive devotion to strength, speed and six-pack abs.

In the long run, Brown’s foot injury might not be a big deal. If anyone can make a seamless transition to playing time after missing part of training camp, it’s this dude, whom Raiders coach Jon Gruden insists outdoes even the legendary Jerry Rice when it comes to working on the field. Brown is a 10th-year NFL veteran who owns the entire wide-receiver toolbox. He’ll bounce back.

But you know this is driving Gruden crazy. He’s a man who can tolerate all sorts of quirks and antisocial behavior in his players, as long as they perform. But they can’t perform if they’re hurt. Brown is the Raiders’ best player, and he is currently contributing nothing to the cause.

Another way to look at it: Brown probably doesn’t need these practices to produce. But his offensive teammates could sure use some preseason reps to familiarize themselves with the four-time all-pro.

“Yeah, when he is on the field it’s completely different, you know what I’m saying?,” Oakland quarterback Derek Carr said after practice. “He’s somebody that changes the way defenses play. He’s someone that changes, obviously, what Coach will call for him and things like that, so you definitely wish he was out there. But we’ve had a lot of time on task, so it’s not like (it’s) unknown.”

Carr also said this: “It’s tough when he is not out there. It’s tough for me not having that read or him in that matchup, or whatever, but at the end of the day, I can play that in my mind and know we had enough reps to where I know, ‘Oh yeah, he’ll win. He’s won on that every time.’ Or ‘I know where that ball is going in that coverage’ and things like that.”

Mental reps are no substitute for physical ones, though.

Even the Rams head coach was missing Brown. “I hope that he’s able to heal as quickly as possible, but yeah, I would have loved to have gotten some work against him,” Sean McVay said. “That’s a bummer for us all.”

It is. Brown can’t go back in time and don a pair of combat boots in that cryotherapy chamber, and he can’t rush the healing process now. For Gruden and the Raiders, there is nothing but waiting. The timing isn’t great. This team is trying to dig its way back from a 4-12 season, and it needs its best players together, on the field, to propel that process. Even a minor setback to Antonio Brown could have a lingering effect.

“Is he OK? That’s all I want to know,” Gruden said when someone mentioned Brown’s balloon ride on July 26, the day before camp opened. “I expect a lot more drama from number 84, I really do.”

He’s got it now. This wasn’t one of the hard knocks the coach was anticipating.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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