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.
Saunders: T.J. Watt Not among Long List of Steelers’ Issues this Offseason
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, unhappy with the way the 2020 season ended, chose not attend his exit interview with the team, according to a report on Monday by WXDX-FM host Mark Madden.
Watt denied the report, saying that he had in fact met with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator and de-facto outside linebackers coach Keith Butler before leaving the city at the close of the season.
Would love to hear who Mark’s sources are. They certainly can’t be myself, Coach T, Kevin Colbert or Coach Butler. All of whom I met with during exit interviews, prior to packing my own things after a hard fought season trying to give everything I have for the city of Pittsburgh. https://t.co/wqJsGObYp7
— TJ Watt (@_TJWatt) January 26, 2021
Let’s make no mistake, the Steelers have a lot of problems this offseason.
• They chose not to retain three coaches and another retired. The general manager, head coach and defensive coordinator are all working on year-to-year contracts.
• Tight end Vance McDonald has already retired. Center Maurkice Pouncey looks like he’s leaning that way.
• Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t made his decision public yet, but he’ll either retire or return and contribute to a salary cap crunch that already has the team operating way in the red.
• And that’s before any of the Steelers’ 19 free agents gets a chance to re-sign.
All told, at least a half-dozen starters are unlikely to return along with several key rotational players.
Regardless of whether he did or didn’t attend his exit meeting with the team last week, T.J. Watt is not one of those problems.
The all-everything linebacker was the best player on one of the best defenses in the league all season, is scheduled to return for his fifth season in black and gold in 2021 and is the player most likely to be offered a long-term extension by the club between now and then.
Even despite the loss of cohort Bud Dupree and sitting out a meaningless finale in Cleveland, Watt led the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits, he was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. He remains the odds-on favorite to become the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Watt is coming back, he’s still going to be really, really good, and nothing said or not said in an interview would have changed that.
The rest of the team?
Saunders: Steelers’ ‘Standard’ Makes for Tough Evaluations
PITTSBURGH — “The standard is the standard.”
Of all of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s unique sayings, that might be the most ubiquitous.
It’s also the one that’s just as much about the place that Tomlin coaches than it is about his particular style.
In Pittsburgh, the standard is the Super Bowl. That’s a standard that was set long before Tomlin arrived in the Steel City and will likely remain long after he’s gone. When you’re the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies, anything short of adding to that case is a disappointment.
On Sunday, the Steelers suffered that disappointment, in somewhat spectacular fashion, giving up four first-quarter touchdowns to before dragging their way back to a respectable final score in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
That is, respectable anywhere else. Not in Pittsburgh, where first-round playoff losses, even on the heels of 12-4 regular seasons, draw ire and not adulation.
While that standard is a well-earned one when it comes to the level of play that the football team has shown it is capable of achieving, it’s not a particularly good one when it comes to evaluating the participants.
On Sunday, the Steelers’ first play of scrimmage saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball 20 yards over the head of his quarterback and into his own end zone for seven Cleveland points. If it wasn’t so horrifying to watch for the Steelers faithful, it would have been hilarious. You couldn’t even make such an absurd way to start the game.
As the game went on, and the Steelers defense faltered time and again on the way to giving up 48 points on the day, it was undrafted rookie corner James Pierre and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, freshly plucked from Indy’s practice squad, playing big roles, as injuries and COVID-19 conspired to leave the once-ridiculously strong defense a feeble parody of its former self.
Those aren’t excuses. Every team has dumb and weird things happen. Every team has injuries and absences. Truly great ones find a way to overcome those things in the big picture.
On the small scale, though, that’s more than enough to cost a team one game. And in the playoffs, you don’t get a mulligan. So while the focus on this season-ending Monday is rightfully on the team’s 0-1 playoff record, the 12-4 regular season probably provides a better picture of how good and how successful this truly team was.
One-game playoffs are by their nature very random events. It doesn’t take a lot for a good team to be beat a great one or a mediocre team to beat a good one.
“You know, it’s always a cumulative body of work,” Tomlin said. “One performance can put an exclamation point on decision making and things. We also assess the cumulative.”
So when Tomlin was asked after the game how he should be held accountable for failing to win a playoff game in his second straight postseason appearance, he leaned on another one of his pet sayings.
“It is what it is,” Tomlin said. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”
The record is what it is. The Steelers had a wildly successful first three-quarters of the season, stumbled down the stretch, and face-planted in the postseason. That means that in Pittsburgh, the team failed to meet the standard for success, and that has many talking about Tomlin’s future.
Fortunately for Tomlin, the Rooney Family also seems to have a pretty keen understanding about the volatile math of the playoffs. After all, grading every season on a Super Bowl or bust, pass-fail grading scale, would involve a lot of failing grades. But the Steelers have had more stable leadership than any other NFL team, with just three coaches going back to the 1960s.
Chuck Noll went four years without winning a playoff game twice, once from 1980-83, going 0-2 and didn’t make the playoffs at all from 1985-88. Bill Cowher missed the postseason three straight years from 1998-2000. Tomlin is on his second such four-year span, going 0-2 from 2011-14 and now 0-2 from 2017-20. That’s a lot of failing, and a lot of guys that kept right on with their jobs.
The standard may be the standard in the fans’ eyes, but it’s clear that in the evaluation of coaches, the Rooney family has other methods. Perhaps Tomlin has failed in some of those areas, as well. His strategy on Sunday was questionable in many facets and in-game management has never been a strength. The way the game started, with a 28-point deficit and the fact that it came at the hands of the Browns likely did Tomlin no favors.
“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that. That’s football and that’s life.”
There are many questions about what the Steelers team will look like after an offseason that is sure to be full of turmoil and turn over. It’s possible that may include change at the head coach position, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it will not. It’s hard to argue with what has led the Rooneys and Steelers to so much success. It’s part of why the standard is the standard.
Steelers Now Staff 2020 Season Predictions
Here are our Steelers Now staff predictions for the 2020 season. Think you know better than we do? Leave your prediction in the comments.
NICK FARABAUGH, STEELERS NOW ANALYST, REPORTER
The Steelers boast an impressive defense. They return most of the guys from last year except Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron, but they do add back in Stephon Tuitt. This is still a defense that has playmakers at every level. From T.J. Watt and Heyward to Devin Bush to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, this is a defense that offensive coordinators do not want to face, period. This team had an astonishing 38 turnovers forced last year, and I have to think while they may not repeat that number, they’ll get close to it. It was a nice depth signing to bring on Sean Davis as well in case of any injuries to the safety group. I don’t see this defense taking much of a step back.
However, the offense should take a step forward. After a year without Ben Roethlisberger, he is back and by all reports looks great. The additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool give him an even more expansive group of weapons than he had coming into last year. The offensive line depth looks fantastic thanks to the signing of Stefen Wisniewski and picking Kevin Dotson in the 4th round. This team has a lot of schematic flexibility. With Matt Canada bringing his motion and play-action concepts with him as well, this offense has a lot of upside to it. I think this offense takes a big step up this year, especially in the red zone.
The Steelers prediction is not too tough on paper. The NFC East is an OK division, and while the NFC South has some tough teams, the Steelers are very capable of winning all those games. Not pulling the Chiefs is a pretty nice bonus, too.
Season Prediction: 11-5
Three other predictions that I will throw out:
• Eric Ebron will lead this offense in receiving touchdowns. He’s going to be a huge threat in the red zone for this team.
• Steven Nelson gets 3+ interceptions this year. It was a bit of a down year in terms of ball production for him last year, but that changes this year.
• James Conner stays healthy enough and gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season.
ALAN SAUNDERS, STEELERS NOW MANAGING EDITOR, BEAT WRITER
With a very, very weird offseason, I think the beginning of the 2020 season is going to be tough, even for good football teams. We’ve already seen that through Week 1, with the San Francisco 49ers dropping a game to the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles finding ways to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins.
But the Steelers have been blessed with a very light open to their season. They’ll get the New York Giants, fresh off a coaching change, followed by the listless Denver Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, setting the team up for a potential 3-0 start before facing a pair of playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Later non-division games at Jacksonville, against Washington, at Buffalo and against Indianapolis all seem very winnable.
Divisional play should also lean the Steelers’ way, as Cleveland has not significantly improved, and while Cincinnati will be much better, they were so bad last season, it would hard to be worse. They should be favored in four of six division games.
From a team standpoint, they certainly got better than last year, simply by the addition of Roethlisberger. If this defense can drag the offense to an 8-8 record without Roethlisberger, how good can they be with him? Truly, the sky is the limit, as there isn’t a single game on the Steelers’ slate that seems unwinnable at the outset of the season.
The lone stumbling block will be a Baltimore Ravens team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last year and also got better in the offseason, adding defensive lineman Calais Campbell and five top-100 draft picks from the 2020 NFL Draft. The Ravens are the best team in the division, and even Roethlisberger won’t be a sure thing to change that math in the Steelers’ favor.
Season prediction: 11-5, No. 5 seed in AFC, loss in AFC Championship Game
Bonus Steelers predictions:
• Diontae Johnson will be the team’s leading receiver.
• Three Steelers will have more than 10 sacks.
• Chase Claypool will score more than four touchdowns.
Bonus NFL predictions:
• The New England Patriots will have a better record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• The New York Jets will finish in last place.
• Joe Burrow will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
MIKE VUKOVCAN, CO-FOUNDER
12-4. The Steelers will win the AFC North and will play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl. The team’s biggest offensive weapon will be Ebron.
MIKE ASTI, DIGITAL CONTENT MANAGER
11-5. I have Steelers winning AFC North because of actual stability at quarterback and another year together for the defense. Roethlisberger will also be more efficient than he’s been because of the addition of Ebron in particular, who will be among best offseason additions throughout league.
CALE BERGER, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER
11-5. Win AFC north. lose to Chiefs in AFC championship. Defense will be stellar. Diontae Johnson team MVP