Let’s go back in time.
It’s Week 15 of the 2017 NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing host to the New England Patriots in a game that would determine where the AFC road to the Super Bowl would go through.
Antonio Brown, one of the league’s best receivers, is being carried off the field with what was later known to be a partially torn calf muscle. Despite missing the last two games of the season, Brown finished his 2017 campaign with 101 receptions, 1,533 yards and 9 TD’s on the season. At the height of his game, Brown was not only one of the best receivers in the game, but one of the best players in the league, period.
Steelers fans know to appreciate talent when they see it, and fresh off a contract that made him the league’s highest paid pass-catcher, Brown elevated his game and embraced the city that turned him from a sixth round draft pick to a superstar at a time when players like running back Le’Veon Bell were holding out for more money.
So when one of Pittsburgh’s most proud players went down with an injury, an entire stadium full of Steelers fans let him know what the blue-collar town thought of Brown.
One thing I understand about this fan base and that I’ll never forget and always appreciate is your passion. Know that it’s all love this way and I am forever thankful for #steelernation ! 🙏🏾 (this is not a goodbye, just a thank u) pic.twitter.com/5mCg5pRjXL
— Antonio Brown (@AB84) January 20, 2019
“M-V-P” chants rang across Heinz Field. There’s a long list of historically great pass catchers in the history of the franchise, yet in that moment, Brown was the most appreciated of them all. A man who showed up to work every day as one of the most talented receivers of this generation saw exactly what any fan capable of holding a Terrible Towel would say to him if given the chance: M-V-P.
Although less than two years removed from that snapshot, recent events have turned that moment into an eternity. The lego-hair, “business is boomin!” Antonio Brown no longer exists. Instead, 2019’s model of Brown can be classified as “Mr. Big Chest”, an enigma of Brown’s ego that includes a blonde mustache and hair that can only be described as if a stray gummy worm had made its home in Brown’s scalp.
Brown is no longer in Pittsburgh. The team dealt him to the Oakland Raiders for a third and fifth round pick, a return that many deem insufficient. The details are moot, however, Brown will be playing his football on the other side of the country in silver and black.
The door is now officially closed on Brown bringing a Super Bowl back to Pittsburgh, much like he wanted to earlier in his career. Brown’s six season stretch of dominance as a Steeler will always be remembered, yet he and his team ultimately could never put their name on a Lombardi Trophy, the only thing that matters to a franchise and its fans.
The Steelers will now move forward with JuJu Smith-Schuster as their number one receiver, a role he feels he’s ready to take.
I’m Ready… pic.twitter.com/K9EZVna0VV
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) March 10, 2019
The trade to Oakland is still new to everybody involved, and will certainly take some adjusting to see Brown in other colors. Yet the ultimate question is being asked in the Steel City:
How will Antonio Brown be remembered in Pittsburgh?
It might be early to cast any opinions on that topic. You have the radical fans on either side of the story, proclaiming his significance (or lack of) to the organization the moment he was traded early Sunday morning. There are those who prefer to wait until time has passed, so an entire city full of opinions are given breathing room before being thrown into the wild abyss of social media and debate.
To really grasp an opinion, the story of Brown’s time in Pittsburgh needs to start from the beginning.
It’s 2012, and the Steelers are at a crossroads with receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace, considered to be the fastest man outside of the hashes during this time, wanted a big payday and the Steelers weren’t ready to exactly hand the bank over. Wallace departs for the money, and on the scene erupts Antonio Brown.
Brown saw continued success both on the field and financially, as the Steelers gave him a five-year, $42.5 million extension rather than paying Wallace. Brown’s hard work and talent won Steelers fans over, quickly becoming a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
A few years down the line, Brown is due for another payday. Putting up gaudy numbers, Brown was ultimately made the highest paid receiver at the time with a four-year, $68 million extension.
From there, Brown was expected to ride into the sunset with his bags full of money and help the Steelers reach a coveted seventh Super Bowl victory.
Up to this point, Brown never caused too much trouble. Sure, he was big on social media and some weren’t a fan of his celebrations. You can throw some baby mama drama in for good measure, yet nothing critically alarming jumped off the page when measuring Brown’s character.
It’s the 2018 off-season, and running back Le’Veon Bell is franchise-tagged for a second straight season. Bell sat out of training camp for the 2017 season for a new contract, and was intent on doing the same for 2018. Needing some cap relief to accommodate Bell’s $14+million tag, the Steelers convert Brown’s 2018 salary into a heavy bonus to free some cap space to sign Bell.
Long story short: Bell doesn’t show, and is allowed to walk free after playing a game of chicken with the Steelers front office. Typically that’d be fine, but in attempting to create room to sign Bell, the Steelers put $21 million in dead cap space towards Antonio Brown on the books for 2019.
This is where Brown ultimately gained leverage with the Steelers, and was the focal point of getting him to his next destination.
A lot of people will make noise about his absence in the final week of the regular season, where the Steelers needed a win and some help to enter the postseason. After the game, we learned Brown had skipped a week of practice and didn’t return anybody’s phone calls, and was feuding with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and had been for some time.
Brown claimed he wanted a fresh start, citing reasons such as the lack of winning culture, no respect from owner Art Rooney II or general manager Kevin Colbert, and a growing frustration with Roethlisberger.
Yet his intentions for leaving had nothing to do with those. Antonio was revealed much the same way an evil character on Scooby-Doo episodes were. It was, and was always, about more money.
And here’s where the conversation starts to shift about Brown.
For as talented, charismatic and hard-working as Brown is, his digging a way out of the Steelers organization was only to get more money. The main reason for Brown leaving wasn’t due to his relationship with Roethlisberger, or his treatment from the coaching staff, or even the emergence of Smith-Schuster… it was only about money.
For athletes, it’s fine to want a big payday. Yet for Brown, who’s ink still might be fresh from the deal that paid him the most of any in his position group just two years prior, the money grab appeared to be of the highest levels of greed.
After his 2018 salary was converted to a bonus, Brown had three seasons remaining on his deal with a whopping $0.00 in guaranteed cash. With the Steelers carrying $21 million in dead cash through 2019, Brown’s money endeavors were of no reason to remain in Pittsburgh.
“If your team got guaranteed money, they want to get to know me and work with me, tell them call me”- Brown on Instagram Live
From the final week of the regular season to this very moment you’re reading this, Antonio Brown carried out one of the most impressive smearing of a franchise via social media we may ever witness.
The carefree toying of the Steelers organization successfully built ground for Brown to stand on, whether it be the Instagram live interviews or sit-downs with Lebron/ESPN, tweeting countless ambiguous/mysterious messages for his millions of followers to decode or anything else you can find that even slightly suggests the entire predicament Brown was in was only to blame on the Steelers.
Sort through all the fuss, and now Brown has a new three-year, $50.1 million contract with $30.1 million guaranteed.
He got what he wanted. There’s no denying Brown won his battle with Pittsburgh’s front office, especially after personally denying a trade to the Buffalo Bills that would have involved the Steelers getting the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, forcing the Steelers to deal him elsewhere.
Antonio provided quite the show on the field, yet off the field reached heights nobody expected from the once humble low round pick just trying to prove himself. Brown provided us with a large number of great memories, whether it be the “immaculate extension” on Christmas day to seal a division title over the Ravens in the winding seconds of the game, or really any other remarkable play that made us stand up collectively and remain amazed, no matter how many times we’ve seen an extraordinary catch from him.
Yet for as much good as he brought, his exit dilutes nearly everything he built-in Pittsburgh. In hindsight, Brown inched closer and closer to “diva” levels with each season he played. I suppose that’s what happens when the best only get better, yet after his huge payday in 2017, Brown really dialed in on focusing on himself.
What won’t Steelers fans miss?
The arguments with coaches, throwing a Gatorade cooler on the sideline, sitting by himself during a playoff loss, his temper-filled post-game reactions, the hate/hate relationship with local media, blasting the mother of his children on social media, attaining a speeding ticket for going over 100 mph, throwing furniture off the balcony, domestic violence reports and going live on Facebook after a big playoff win in the coveted space of a locker room… just to name a few.
However, it doesn’t mean watching Brown walk away doesn’t even slightly sting for those that faithfully indulge themselves in front of a television during every Sunday during the fall. Losing a player of that caliber when there’s still some gas left in the tank hurts.
I suppose that’s the worst part about watching Antonio already happy to be on another team. He’s been labeled by many for being things like selfish, greedy and really any other negative connotation possible… yet he wasn’t always like that.
Pittsburgh has watched countless of their own talented players work their way out-of-town. When we watched Wallace say goodbye and head to South Beach, we laughed and bid him farewell as the Steelers had a hidden gem ready to shine.
When Martavis Bryant was traded to Oakland last season, we said good riddance and took a third round pick with a smile on our faces. Bryant displayed an enormous amount of jealousy towards Smith-Schuster, and was as good as gone due to his decrease in production despite an increase in drug usage.
When Le’Veon was holding out for his big payday, that made Brown shine even more. Brown never held out for a new deal, patiently waited and got it. By Bell not showing his face at all during 2018 season and surely out the door, Brown was the one superstar the Steelers claimed was left standing tall and calling God after every touchdown.
Even outsiders made Steelers fans feel good about Brown. Whether it be watching Dez Bryant walk off the field before a game was over, or Odell Beckham Jr.’s continued maturity problems, there once existed a point in time where Steelers fans could say “Yeah, well at least AB isn’t like that“.
However, time only tells the truth.
We were right about Brown. He isn’t like Bell, Bryant or Wallace. The steps he took to ensure his ticket out-of-town was guaranteed while simultaneously burning every bridge possible out of a city that contains 446 of them will stand as far worse of a testament of character for Brown in comparison to any of those listed above.
What will Antonio Brown’s legacy in Pittsburgh?
Unfulfilled. The Steelers rode the extreme highs and the lowest of lows with Brown. Brown will remain one of the most talented players to ever wear a Steelers uniform, that part is undeniable. Yet the ultimate chase of money twisted Brown from a Steel City hero to the evil villain in a movie who appears to have gotten the last laugh before the credits roll.
The sun will rise like it always does, the Steelers will move on and so will Brown. It’s the nature of the business. Brown is doing what he deems is right for him and his family, and to a certain extent, you have to respect his ability to pull strings like he did.
Should he one day be giving an acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio wearing a gold jacket, it will be fun to reminisce on the dominance he displayed during his stint in Pittsburgh. However, Steelers fans will ultimately be left wondering what could have been, had things turned different with Brown.