Antonio Brown isn’t the first guy to finagle a path out of Pittsburgh in recent years, but he needs to be the last.
It’s now obvious that the Steelers lost this one, badly. For all the bluster about insisting on “significant compensation” for Brown and not rushing to trade him before a $2.5 million roster bonus comes due on March 17, the Steelers ultimately took the best deal they could get: A third-round pick and a fifth-round pick.
Given that they got a third-round pick a year ago for receiver Martavis Bryant, they should have gotten far more than a three and a five for one of the best receivers in the league. And they didn’t, not just because Brown wanted to go but because the Steelers decided that they needed to him to leave. And they needed him to leave because they allowed him to morph into a guy who became a problem that only could be solved with a one-way ticket out of town.
In 2010, Brown arrived as a sixth-round pick from Central Michigan. During Super Bowl week, I asked Cameron Heyward — a first-rounder in 2011 who had much better cause to act like a diva — how Brown became bigger than the team. “I don’t know how it happened,” Heyward said.
It happened because management allowed it to happen, rewarding Brown financially in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2017 while plenty of the things that came to light in recent years surely were going on, from tardiness to setting up his own off-campus residence during training camp. His last payday, which began with a $19 million signing bonus and continued with a 2018 restructuring bonus of nearly $13 million, came only weeks after he opted to launch a Facebook Live stream from the locker room after a playoff win (capturing among other things coach Mike Tomlin referring to the Patriots as “assholes“), and after reports emerged of Brown pouting because he wasn’t getting the ball as much as he wanted it during the AFC title game.
They can’t be surprised that Brown felt like the contract he received two years ago vindicated his antics. And they also can’t be surprised that players like Brown would think that misbehavior has its rewards. In 2014 (as Andrew Fillipponi reminded me during a Friday visit to his 93.7 The Fan afternoon-drive show), running back LeGarrette Blount seemed to orchestrate his release from the Steelers, so that he could return to the Patriots — something he didn’t deny when asked about it during the week preceding Super Bowl XLIX. Linebacker James Harrison reportedly slept his way out of Pittsburgh in 2017.
Ultimately, this kind of stuff flows right back to Tomlin, who seat surely has gotten a lot hotter now that his mismanagement of Brown will result in the Steelers enduring a public humiliation, along with the loss of a highly talented player. But it also flows up the chain of command to ownership, which seems to have allowed the three-coaches-in-50-years thing to become so much of the franchise’s identity that Tomlin has never had to fear the ultimate consequence for failing to get the most out of one of the most talented teams in football.
Moving forward, things must change. Who knows how many more Lombardi Trophies the Steelers would have won if true accountability had resided in that locker room over the last five years? Instead, the team that has become the embodiment of football accountability has now caught the Steelers with six Super Bowl wins, and that Patriots seem to be much better suited than the Steelers to be the first to No. 7.