In case you haven’t been following his descent into absurdity, Antonio Brown went all Antonio Brown again Tuesday, announcing his request to be traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers. It would have been stunning news, but the team already had let it be known it has little tolerance for him anymore. Who’s dumping whom? It doesn’t really matter, except to Brown, who lives in a strange reality that complicates his trade value.
As a player, Brown is easily a top-10 NFL talent. He is the most prolific wide receiver of the past decade, and he is a surefire Hall of Famer just nine seasons into his career. At 5-foot-10, he is the most statistically dominant wideout under 6 feet in league history, the owner of a record six straight 100-catch seasons. And he doesn’t turn 31 until July. With his exceptional training habits, it’s reasonable to project three or four more elite seasons from Brown. Barring major injury, there’s little risk in betting on his skills; from that standpoint, he is as safe as a late-prime football player can be.
Nevertheless, the Steelers are eager to move on, but may have trouble getting the first-round draft pick they are expected to want in a trade.
That’s because the Brown who rose from sixth-round pick to stardom, who added color to a crotchety old game with his personality, doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Fame has changed him, which is not all his fault. Ego has ruined him, which is all on him. He has created his own world, and in it, respect and accountability are at his discretion. It’s a dangerous, selfish place to be.
Brown’s game used to be full of numbers and impact. The stunning stats remain, but as his issues off the field mount and his behavior in the locker room gets worse, you must wonder whether he has the football character remaining to uplift a new team and influence winning.
Clearly, Brown thinks he does. He hopes a change of scenery will do the trick. So he took to social media and sent a goodbye via Twitter.
“Thank you SteelerNation for a big 9 years . . . time to move on and forward,” he wrote, concluding with a peace sign and “#NewDemands.”
The public declaration led to a typical high level of national media attention for one of the game’s superstars. But in truth, the relationship between Brown and the Steelers ended in Week 17 of last season when Brown nursed an injury, stayed away from the team and kept his availability unknown until the last minute. During that week of preparation, the Steelers were still alive for a playoff berth, but Brown didn’t communicate with Coach Mike Tomlin. Many of the Steelers thought Brown had quit on them, an accusation from which there is no return. On the morning of the season finale, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, called to tell Tomlin that Brown could play. Tomlin wasn’t having it.
“We don’t operate like that,” Tomlin later said. “Playing wasn’t on the menu.”
At the same time Tomlin spoke about the Brown situation during his season-ending news conference in early January, the wide receiver was on Twitter trying to steal attention, turning a delicate situation into a fiasco. It was bad enough that the Steelers had fallen from 7-2-1 to 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs. It was bad enough that they played the entire season with the drama of running back Le’Veon Bell holding out over a contract dispute. Now Brown, who had been testing Tomlin for years with antics that advanced from playful to disruptive to unforgivable, was a major problem. It may have taken Brown six weeks to request a trade in public, but a divorce has been quietly in the works for some time.
The Steelers, a model NFL franchise, can’t handle being involved in dysfunction worthy of a reality television show. They probably bent their standard too much in allowing Brown freedom and in trying to be patient with Bell. For so long, Pittsburgh had been a fearless franchise willing to cut players or let them walk before they became too expensive, but sometimes transcendent talent forces you to get away from your ideals. So does the desire to get to one more Super Bowl with an aging, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback such as Ben Roethlisberger.
Combine those factors with several years of average drafting by the Steelers’ standards, and the team became needy. It’s understandable, but it’s not the Steelers. They need to trade Brown to regain their authority and their identity.
Can Brown regain his reputation as simply a fun-loving great player? Most of the league should be interested in him, and considering that the Steelers must deal him, teams will try to capitalize on their trade partner’s limited options and hope to get Brown for less-than-ideal compensation. Maybe a second-round pick outright or a second, plus an additional late-round selection. The Steelers will want a first-rounder, at least. For Brown to garner maximum value in a trade, he needs to convince suitors that he’s more than a stat-collecting headache.
Brown can help any team, but for him to be a true difference maker, he must return to being a quarterback’s best friend with his reliable hands, extreme competitiveness and legendary work ethic. Those traits can make a good team become great. But they have to come without the issues, which include a reckless driving charge that he didn’t bother showing up to court for this week and a recent allegation of domestic violence that he vehemently denies.
And even if Brown stays out of trouble, there’s also the issue of his contract. He has an attractive deal that pays him reasonable salaries: $12.6 million next season, $11.3 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in 2021. But when he agreed to that deal, he was an enthusiastic member of the Steelers and willing to take a little less. Now there are reports that he might want to renegotiate if traded. It could further complicate a difficult situation and hinder the Steelers’ ability to make a great trade.
In dealing with or dealing for Brown, there is nothing easy. After nine seasons, 837 receptions, 11,207 yards and 74 touchdowns, after seven Pro Bowls and four first-team all-pro honors, the immense talent can’t wait to leave Pittsburgh, and the renowned organization seemingly can’t wait to oblige. For all the great memories, the two sides can offer just one thing to each other during this breakup: relief.
Brown craves the freedom, but here’s hoping he also receives a reality check. The change he needs most is a transformation back into the receiver who puts in more work and expresses more joy than any player in the game.
That guy was incomparable. This guy is insufferable.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.