- Brown’s reaction to a reported dispute in Steelers’ practice last week isn’t anything we haven’t seen out of the Pittsburgh locker room before.
Whether or not Antonio Brown actually requested a trade, a resulting deal seems unlikely. A look at his contract shows a cap number of $22.165 million for the coming season—the peak remaining financial commitment (and resulting dead cap space) of the $72.1-million contract he signed back in 2017.
The Steelers would be unloading the most talented wide receiver in the NFL simply to rid the locker room of bad vibes, and the financial savings would barely register. The offense would be stripped of a second transcendent superstar in as many seasons, with the aging Ben Roethlisberger left to mend it all together. The Steelers would be admitting that, despite four previous years in the postseason, the end-of-2018 nose dive ripped the walls off their locker room and gave everyone a glimpse of the issues that have been slow-cooking for half a decade now. It is not their style.
Their recent past has seen them brush aside not only Brown’s mercurial behavior, but also the outlandish behavior of all their best players. Roethlisberger openly complained about a draft pick after he feigned interest in retirement and refused to call Brown his No. 1 wide receiver in November. Le’Veon Bell held out and the team’s offensive line throttled him in the press. Are they going to suddenly reverse course now, just because Brown is throwing what seemingly amounts to a very elaborate temper tantrum?
As players depart for the end of the season, the challenge will not be on finding a partner and sorting through the miles of financial red tape. It will be counting on Brown to sufficiently cool by the time voluntary workouts resume—assuming he shows up for them at all. It will be counting on Roethlisberger to realize the special connection he has with a once-in-a-lifetime receiver before his career ends without a legitimate run at Super Bowl No. 3. It will be counting on coach Mike Tomlin to come back energized and stoic for another season spent breaking up the countless cat fights and transparent posturing.
It will be counting on the kind of dysfunctional fuel that has propelled them along this far, because they don’t really have much of a choice.
For years now, we have watched the Steelers display clear warning signs of discord, and accept their adolescent response in return—a mixture of I didn’t say that, or Nothing is wrong! or That’s in the past, we’re moving on—because the on-field product was good. This flurry of New Year’s Day dirt, coming off a season where they didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, shows us how gruesome this undertaking will be in the coming weeks and months. Brown probably isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Roethlisberger. Neither is Tomlin, or JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Vance McDonald, or any of the other ancillary pieces in this melodrama. Instead, they will all have to come together and do something they haven’t been able to do with any success to this point: Work it out.