KANSAS CITY, Mo.
The Raiders will have right tackle Trent Brown available Sunday when they take the field against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Or maybe they won’t, just as they didn’t last week against the Buffalo Bills or the week before against the New England Patriots or the week before that against the New Orleans Saints.
That’s the problem.
Four games into their first season in Las Vegas, the Raiders’ highest-paid player, along with quarterback Derek Carr, has been on the field for exactly three plays while nursing a calf injury that sidelined him almost all of training camp.
In fact, going all the way back to last season, you can count on one hand the number of plays Brown has appeared in over the last eight games.
While he practiced with the Raiders this week for the first time since the opening week of the season, he was only a full participant on Friday. His status for Sunday is listed as questionable.
“We’ll see,” Brown said Friday when asked if he’ll play. “I’ve got to work with the trainers and see what’s going on. It’ll be a game-time decision.”
The ongoing injury saga of the 6-foot-8-inch right tackle is as perplexing as it is frustrating. While the Raiders outwardly support Brown, annoyance is growing in some quarters of the organization and has left some wondering out loud how much football really means to Brown.
It is a question that has dogged Brown through college and the NFL.
“Is Trent a self-starter? Not all the time,” said Pat Flaherty, who was Brown’s offensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. “A high percentage of the time? Eh, I don’t know. But you have guys like that and it’s up to you as a coach to get them started.”
Former Raiders tackle Lincoln Kennedy, the color commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts and the co-host of “In The Huddle” on Raider Nation Radio, repeatedly has questioned whether a lack of passion for football is part of the reason a calf injury has sidelined Brown for so long.
“He likes football, but I’m not sure he loves football,” Kennedy said on air. Later, Kennedy added: “It had to be said.”
A person close to the situation indicated it isn’t necessarily a case of questioning the validity of Brown’s injury but whether he’s as committed as necessary to the process of getting back on the field.
“I don’t think anyone thinks he’s faking,” the person said. “Just needs to be doing all he can do to get out there.”
Brown is no doubt aware of the talk, and he addressed it Friday when he spoke to the media for the first time all season.
“I can tell you straight off the bat, I don’t live for nobody’s compliments and I’m not going to die from their criticisms,” Brown said of those who have doubted the severity of his injury. “I’m a man first and foremost. I didn’t get this far by giving in to naysayers and doubters.”
After spending his first three seasons in the NFL with the 49ers, Brown was traded to the Patriots, where he started for one season at left tackle. Then, two years ago, when he became an unrestricted free agent and the Patriots decided not to re-sign him, he signed a four-year, $66-million contract with the Raiders for $36.75 million guaranteed.
The guarantee is an important element of the deal. It’s an obligation the Raiders will have met by the end of this season. That means they can walk away from the last two years of the deal, in which he is slated to make $14 million and $15.25 million, without a hit to the salary cap.
In 2019, his first season with the Raiders, Brown gave up just one sack in 326 snaps to earn Pro Bowl honors. But a pectoral injury limited him to just 11 games. He missed the season’s final four games.
If Brown’s prolonged absence this season is a case of a lack of diligence and motivation, it fits with a narrative about Brown going all the way back to college.
As one NFL coach familiar with Brown as a draft prospect indicated, there was a red flag even then about his work ethic and habit of falling out of shape.
“There were concerns about his conditioning, for sure,” the coach said.
As one NFL general manager said: “We intentionally passed on him,” citing those same concerns.
That also could be why his two former NFL teams opted against investing big money in a player who, when he’s on the field, is a premier performer at his position.
Brown fell to the seventh round of the 2015 draft, where the 49ers selected him 244th overall.
A year later, Chip Kelly took over as coach and brought with him Flaherty, a no-nonsense offensive line coach and longtime assistant under Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants. Flaherty, aware of the college reports, said he sat down with Brown to gauge his goals and objectives.
What he found was a player who told him he wanted to be one of the best tackles in football. “So we laid out a plan and he followed it pretty good,” Flaherty said.
The key, Flaherty said, was getting Brown to focus on the competition. When Brown faced top players like Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, Flaherty said he typically played well.
“I enjoyed coaching him because I thought he responded, from that standpoint,” Flaherty said.
On the other hand, figuring out ways to keep Brown engaged could be a challenge.
“Trent was kind of hard to reach sometimes,” Flaherty said. “You would get the opinion that it wasn’t important to him. But when it was rug-cutting time, he demonstrated that it was important.”
As far as the day-to-day, daily grind of preparation and conditioning, Flaherty felt with Brown it was a matter of pushing the right buttons.
His time with the 49ers, however, left many in the organization frustrated by his lax film study and work ethic.
It is an issue Brown addressed during Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Patriots.
“That was the word of mouth or whatever,” Brown told the NBC Sports Bay Area. “Even before I got drafted, people said I don’t work hard. I’m just a quiet guy. I’m not a rah-rah guy. I show up to work. I’m not here to make friends or anything like that. I’m doing the same thing here that I’ve been doing. I feel like if it’s good enough for this type of organization, it should be good enough anywhere.”
Brown did concede to NBC Sports Bay Area that he isn’t a big watcher of game film.
“I feel like I don’t need to watch film,” he said. “I play my game and use the techniques my coaches teach me and be able to work on daily. People have to come play Trent Brown.”
The Raiders are hoping that is the case on Sunday in Kansas City.