When does a player cross the line between representing his organization, and outright talking too much?
Evidently, the line is crossed when the player represents his team wearing what could have been mistaken for an Easter basket.
Ever since an anonymous comment exposed a fracture in the foundation the Pittsburgh Steelers were planning on building a 2013 NFL championship run on, the media has begun a witch-hunt for the unnamed player while trying to squeeze anything they can get out of an empty shallow well.
Antonio Brown has been forced into the spotlight this off-season, thanks to UFA Mike Wallace who is expected to sign with the highest bidder leaving Brown as the Steelers No.1 receiver. A sixth-round draft pick is usually doing well enough to receive a new deal once their contract expires; few are expected to lead their positional groups, let alone their entire team.
The Steelers are an old team which is getting much, much younger. Brown isn't the only late-round draft pick expected to be a leader on-and-off the field, as RFA Jonathan Dwyer is expected to lead an improved running game after taking over the starting job in the latter half of the 2012 season. Dwyer has already admitted the coaches "want more" from him in 2012, leaving little doubt he will at least compete for the starting job in training camp. Whether he wins the competition or not, he will still be expected to be a veteran leader entering his fourth NFL season - at the ripe old age of 23.
Whether it is fair for a NFL toddler to put aside their childhood for adult responsibility is negated by the grown-up salaries they receive in compensation for their sacrifice. Brown signed a five-year extension prior to the 2012 season while Wallace held out of camp, refusing to sign the team's $2.742 million RFA tender after rejecting any alleged long-term offers due to insufficient funds. Brown admitted yesterday in an ESPN radio spot an awkwardness which resulted from the contract situations of peers, teammates and friends.
Unfortunately, instead of being received as mournful regret over the fracture of the relationship between Wallace and the Steelers, Brown has found himself targeted by the media and fans alike for talking too much during a difficult and controversial off-season.
Recent criticism is only a continuation of a trend stemming from Brown's first appearance on one of ESPN's television personas. Brown acknowledged an unquantified division in the locker room during the 2012 season, although his later-admitted awkwardness could have been a chip off the old block. Brown admitted to Teresa Varley of the Steelers official team website, the team as it is now has won nothing on its own and has no reason to feel the same pride veteran ring-bearers once did, because they were no longer even a playoff team judging by the final record of 2012.
Taking Brown's words in context, there is little reason to refute a single syllable. Wallace admitted to a lack of focus during games this year. Rashard Mendenhall went from starter to suspended in two fumbles and two weeks. Special teams penalties were consistently inconsistent, putting Pittsburgh on the negative side of the field position battle, almost every single week; after the assistant coach was fired during camp only to see his replacement leave following the year. Other assistant coaches have accepted jobs elsewhere.
It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out the Steelers had issues this past season, and it certainly didn't take Brown or Ryan Clark to say it, either; but were they really wrong for saying anything at all?
Brown and Clark have been terrorized through the media for answering specific question aimed at them, while they were the only person in the room being interrogated live in front of the entire sports world. In retrospect, both men represented their teams with class and respect, but acknowledged reality with brutal honesty. When did telling the truth become so politically incorrect? What happened to the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution?
Perhaps their comments have been heard so clearly, because it is the off-season. Brown was already at the team's facility training and preparing for his lead role in the 2013 season, just one week after the Super Bowl. He has gone on record saying he will do whatever it takes to stay in Pittsburgh; which could have been taken as an implication of Wallace's handling of his own contract situation and other players refuting pay reduction rumors, like James Harrison. Most players are on a break right now from football, getting as far away as possible. Brown, recognizing his new responsibilities required by his new contract, decided being the best didn't allow for breaks; it is a full-time gig.
However, despite his personal dedication to the organization and his teammates by providing an example for younger players to follow, Brown has been marked with a scarlet letter for simply speaking out of turn; a crime he did not commit. Would we rather reporters interview rookies with relatively no media experience? Do we want them talking to disgruntled free-agents who want to be anywhere but Pittsburgh, painting even further negativity on a transitional off-season?
Brown is learning there is more required of a top receiver and team leader than just exceptional on-field play. Players are held accountable for every single word and action, while being required to speak on behalf of the team they lead, even when the questions aren't of a favorable nature. Brown is being held accountable for his, although incorrectly. Is it because a perennial post-season contender had a disappointing season? Is it because fan-favorite defensive players are nearing a premature end due to financial restrictions? Or, is it because of a much deeper, much more personal issue within the maturity and mental makeup of the man who is supposed to lead the six-time Super Bowl champions into the future, and back to glory?
It was the hat. Wasn't it?