Diva-like behavior? Check. Interpersonal drama? Check. A high-profile cast member said to be wanting out, despite all the money and fame that a long-standing relationship has brought? Check.
No wonder a Pittsburgh Steelers player likened his team to the reality-TV show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Pittsburgh’s just-concluded season had more than its share of highs and lows, and like any good soap opera, it saved some of its biggest bombshells for the end. In the latest episode, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who did not play in the Steelers' Week 17 must-win game against the Cincinnati Bengals, has reportedly asked for a trade.
That’s according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, who tweeted Tuesday that Brown made the request amid “issues” with Coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That news followed reports Monday that Brown was benched for Pittsburgh’s close win over Cincinnati after a heated dispute with Roethlisberger on Wednesday led to the wide receiver missing practice for the rest of the week; the team had indicated a knee injury was keeping Brown out of the contest.
During his weekly appearance Tuesday on a Pittsburgh sports-radio station, Roethlisberger downplayed the incident, which occurred at a team practice session and reportedly included Brown hurling a football in the quarterback’s direction. “If there was a blowup or something, I sure as heck didn’t see it,” Roethlisberger said, adding that the focus on his exchange with Brown was “baffling” to him.
Following La Canfora’s tweet, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said his “understanding of the situation” was that Brown “exited the field in frustration on Wednesday” and “yelled, ‘I’m done!’ Then wondered why they don’t trade him.” Rapoport described Brown’s comments as “more venting in anger than anything” and claimed that the six-time Pro Bowler “has not made any actual trade request, officially.”
Still, if it’s unclear to the outside world how Brown feels about being a Steeler these days, it’s also apparently a mystery to other Pittsburgh players. Calling Brown one of his “closer friends,” Roethlisberger said on the air that he spoke with the wide receiver Thursday morning and “everything was fine,” but noted that it was the “last time” they conversed, despite the quarterback reaching out “numerous times” since then, as have some teammates.
“I know guys that are frustrated,” Roethlisberger said. “I think the biggest thing is, some of the guys that I’ve talked to, they’ve tried to reach out to him and they haven’t heard back.”
Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James sounded frustrated Monday when he compared his team’s season-long foibles, including star running back Le’Veon Bell’s holdout amid a contract dispute, to a certain hit TV program. “We were in the front of the ticker on ESPN too much for just reasons that weren’t related to football and not for us playing great ball,” James said (via Penn Live). “It was more distractions.”
“Ah man, we are — Kardashians,” James added. “We have, I mean, we’re something.”
The tight end mentioned “people calling people out,” which could have been a reference to Roethlisberger’s November criticism of Brown’s route-running at the end of a close loss to the Denver Broncos. The quarterback told reporters afterward that he had “earned the right to be able to do that” because of his long tenure in Pittsburgh.
Ryan Clark, a former Steeler who played with Brown for four seasons and is now an analyst, said Monday on ESPN that he told Pittsburgh coaches in 2012 that by giving the wide receiver a large new contract, “You’re going to create a monster.” Asked by host Scott Van Pelt how, in the wake of his absence from the Bengals game, Brown could now “continue to coexist” with his teammates, Clark replied: “You can’t. This is where Mike Tomlin has to put his foot down and shop Antonio Brown.”
If the Steelers are inclined to try to trade Brown, regardless of whether he actually made the request, his contract could prove a major impediment. According to overthecap.com, Brown would account for more than $21 million in dead money toward the team’s salary cap in 2019 and more than $14 million in 2020, seemingly prohibitive amounts to pay for a player not to contribute on the field, especially one with the talent to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions this season.
Brown, though, will be 31 next season, an age when many players begin to decline, if that process hasn’t already begun. In addition, Pittsburgh appears to have a young star on the rise in 22-year-old wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, recently voted by his teammates as the Steelers' MVP — a fact that the Pittsburgh radio hosts suggested may be contributing to Brown’s discontent.
In the only public clue Tuesday to his frame of mind, Brown replied with a somewhat cryptic, but overtly positive, emoji to a tweet from San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle that slyly made reference to the wide receiver’s possible interest in joining another team.
Roethlisberger said Tuesday that Tomlin had made the decision “right before the game” against the Bengals that Brown would not suit up. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday that Brown arrived at Heinz Field expecting to play, then left the stadium at halftime, missing the end of a win that, in the wake of other results, still was not enough to get the 9-6-1 Steelers into the playoffs.
Roethlisberger claimed that he and his teammates were hopeful to have the wide receiver back next season. “We want AB to play, because he makes all of us better," Roethlisberger said. "He makes me who I am.”
Those are certainly complimentary words from the 36-year-old quarterback, but these days, Brown seems to be making the Steelers resemble less a proud NFL franchise than a reality show involving glamorous but volatile family members.
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