- After nine individually productive seasons without a championship in Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown now begins his second act.
Antonio Brown met Jerry Rice five years ago. He was in California to work out, and he gave the GOAT at his position a phone call.
“I wanted to understand his mentality,” Brown said back then. “What made him who he is: the production, the Super Bowl rings. What was his motivation? How did he get his body prepared every year, and how did he excel? Jerry said I’m on the right track.”
Brown was then entering his fifth NFL season, the year he amassed 1,698 receiving yards. He followed that performance with a 1,834-yard season in 2015, one of his six straight with more than 1,000 yards and at least 100 catches, a ridiculous benchmark. It was hard to imagine the receiver Rice deemed the best in the game playing elsewhere just a few years later, at age 30, not having shown any signs yet of physically slowing down.
But early Sunday morning, the Steelers struck a deal to send Brown to Jon Gruden’s Oakland-soon-to-be-Las Vegas Raiders, reportedly for third- and fifth-round picks, plus a multi-million dollar raise from the contract Brown signed just two years ago. It’s the same team and coach for whom Rice began his second act, though Rice’s came after 16 seasons and three Super Bowl rings in San Francisco.
It’s impossible to know now how what’s transpired over the last few months, a messy chapter in which Brown strong-armed his way out of one of the most successful organizations in the NFL, will ultimately affect his legacy. Randy Moss forced his way out of town on four different occasions during his 14-year career, once playing for three different teams during a single season; Terrell Owens played for six NFL franchises, a hopscotch that, whether fairly or unfairly, delayed his being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame until his third try.
Brown is changing teams for just the first time, and you could understand how a receiver whom coaches have long said outworks everyone else on the field was frustrated over not being named team MVP. Or why, as Brown explained on HBO’s The Shop, he was upset when Ben Roethlisberger shifted the blame onto Brown’s route-running after the QB threw a game-clinching interception against the Broncos.
But Brown is ultimately responsible for his break-up from the Steelers. In September, he had a heated sideline exchange with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner during a loss to the Chiefs. The next day, a former Steelers PR employee tweeted that Brown wouldn’t post the same numbers without Roethlisberger, to which Brown replied, “Trade me let’s find out.” The point of no return came in Week 17, when Brown and Roethlisberger had a confrontation on the practice field on Wednesday. After Brown skipped the Saturday walk-through, head coach Mike Tomlin made the decision to sit him for a regular-season finale that the Steelers needed to win to have a chance to make the postseason. There was no coming back to that locker room after having been perceived as quitting on his teammates.
It’s a 180-degree turn from just two years earlier, when Brown was telling reporters he wanted to be part of the Steelers’ championship legacy, making his contribution to the hallway at the team facility that already included six Lombardi trophies when the team drafted Brown in the sixth round in 2010. He said he already knew what it’s like to be at the top of statistical categories, and said his remaining goal was to win a Super Bowl. “How many balls can you catch—110, 125?” Tomlin said then. "What he’s chasing is a little bit of football immortality. His legacy and those things are always evolving in championships and championship play.”
Brown is entering his 10th season. Rice played 20 years, something Brown picked his brain about. We don’t know how much longer the best receiver of this time period will play—another decade, or another few years—or what is yet to come. But in the arc of his career, this is a significant juncture: Brown leaves Pittsburgh, an organization that is tied for having won the most Super Bowl titles in history, without a ring.
What is he chasing now? That’s a question only he can answer.
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