This piece has been updated after Antonio Brown’s release by the Oakland Raiders.
The Steelers were willing to put up with almost anything from Antonio Brown, just so long as three truths held firm.
During his nine years in Pittsburgh, Brown had established himself as the hardest worker in the building (one staffer once there told me the gap between Brown and everyone else was so wide, he didn’t know who’d rank second). During nine years there, he’d proven himself historically productive (821 catches, 74 touchdowns in the last eight years). And during nine years there, his antics were mostly manageable for the team and locker room of which he was a part.
Then, things changed. What was once considered cute became corrosive, and the Steelers—who’ve long fostered one of the league’s most permissive environments for players—finally had enough. Brown lost his cool after losing a vote for team MVP last December, and stormed out of the facility. He wasn’t the hardest working player in the building that week, because he wasn’t in the building, period. He wasn’t the most productive player on the field that week because he didn’t play at all.
The plan was for Brown to debut for Oakland against Denver on Monday Night Football, per coach Jon Gruden on Friday, amid all the rubble left in his wake of a week where the receiver pulled pin after pin on grenade after grenade. But Saturday morning, Brown posted on Instagram that he wants to be released from the Raiders—and he got exactly that.
Brown will be a free agent, clear to sign with any team. But what we see now is a different AB not because of what he’s done the last six months, but because of the way it’s been handled by those around him.
Exhibit A: As Brown was shooting his way out of Pittsburgh, word spread he wouldn’t report if he didn’t get a new contract. That crushed his trade value, and the Steelers paid a price, only able to net third- and fifth-round picks for a Hall of Fame talent who was under contract for three more years. And for his trouble, Brown did get that contract. Before the trade, he had zero guaranteed left on his deal. The Raiders amended that, not just giving him more money, but fully guaranteeing $30.1 million of it.
Exhibit B: Dueling fiascos involving the top and bottom of Brown’s body keep him away from camp. First, it was a cryotherapy mishap that frostbit his feet. Then, an insistence on keeping the helmet that he’d worn since his rookie year, even after the model was banned by the league as part of a safety initiative that some 2,900 players complied with. GM Mike Mayock declared Brown needed to be “all-in or all-out”, and fined him for missing an Aug. 18 practice. So Brown returned. And did it with a brand-new helmet endorsement deal.
How do you think Brown processes all of this? Does he say, I can do better?How can I fix this?
Or does he find validation in the power of his talent, which has enabled him to do whatever he sees fit?
Brown went nose-to-nose with one of the NFL’s legacy franchises, a Super Bowl-winning coach who’s been in place for over a decade and an ownership family whose arrival in the NFL predated the invention of canned beer by two years—and was not only traded but also secured a $30-million guarantee as a result. With his new team, he refused to practice because he didn’t like his helmet (a stand literally no other NFL player would take), caused a disruption for his team for a national audience to gawk at and became a paid sponsor in the aftermath.
The 31-year-old has always pushed the limits of how far he could go. He’s succeeded that way on the field, once as an underrecruited college prospect, then a sixth-round pick in the NFL. And that success has allowed him to test different boundaries off the field.
How far can he push it? Well on Aug. 18, GM Mike Mayock declared that it’s time for Brown “to be all in or all out.” He fined him $40,000. Three days later, Brown incurred another fine for not participating in a walkthrough ahead of the team’s preseason game in Winnipeg. On Tuesday, Brown posted the fine letter and took a shot at Mayock on Instagram. Wednesday, he was thrown off the premises after an altercation with the GM.
Brown got Thursday off practice and apologized to his teammates Friday. Then Saturday morning he took to Instagram again to request to be released from the Raiders. And his demands were granted.
What Brown has done here would get just about any employee fired 15 times over. It would get almost every one of his teammates whacked, too.
But thinking Brown changed in the 48 hours preceding that apology to the rest of the Raiders is crazier than he is. And it totally disregards how much has changed around him since he walked out on the Steelers in December.
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