Just when it looked like cooler heads might prevail in the ongoing Antonio Brown saga after the relatively calming words of Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward this week, it would be fair to say things took a step backward on Friday. More revelations about the Steelers star receiver would emerge and Brown was back to upsetting the fans on social media with an image of himself in a San Francisco, just a day removed from posting an encouraging message to his teammates at the Pro Bowl.
Few could have read the report from Jeremy Fowler of ESPN and taken much comfort in the picture he painted within the Steelers organization. But while Brown’s perpetual lateness issues and the star treatment he received might have been the headline driving parts of the piece, the sense of a team lacking leadership at all levels was perhaps the overriding theme of the article.
Far from being seen as a cancer in the locker room or the distraction some would have you believe, there was clear affection for Brown from both past and present teammates and an obvious respect for his work ethic and production. Where AB appears to be unquestionably at fault is his disregard for the rules and procedures that govern the rest of the team.
But while he is unquestionable responsible for his own actions, it is impossible to absolve Mike Tomlin of his part in allowing it to get so far. As someone who would suggest it is up to the players to be responsible for their own behavior, it is hard to argue that the head coach is not responsible for setting and maintaining a structure the team will follow.
This does not mean that Tomlin needs to micromanage every situation and cannot let his superstars slide on minor infractions, but overlooking habitual lateness, missed meetings and permitting him to stay off site during training camp was a policy that was never going to end well. A potential issue a number of his teammates foresaw coming, according to the report from Fowler.
“This has been brewing for years,” one ex-teammate said of Brown’s issues. “It’s just now coming to the surface.”
“As the leash gets longer, [Brown] gets the feeling that he can do whatever he wants,” said the ex-Steeler who played with Brown for multiple seasons. “That’s where Tomlin might have wished he would have squashed this earlier.”
Nine years into his professional career, it would appear that Brown has been given so much leeway it is almost impossible to reign him back in. If the report is to be believed, the Steelers have essentially given up on trying to fine him, with his benching in Week 17 looking like an attempt to discipline him for turning lateness into a no show in the final week of the season.
With even the most ardent Brown supporters willing to acknowledge that AB can be somewhat emotional and perhaps a little thin-skinned at times, it would appear that his response to a firmer hand has not been positive. As arguably the biggest star on the roster, Brown has been led to believe he is somewhat untouchable and it is no surprise to learn that he is unresponsive to that arrangement changing.
Once a team full of star names all over the roster, it would be fair to say that Pittsburgh has lost a number of big personalities from their locker room in recent years. As that void has developed, there are fewer and fewer teammates close to Brown’s status on the roster and only four names older than him, something Bryant McFadden alluded to when talking to Fowler.
“When [Brown] became a bigger personality, a superstar, now you have to have a personality that can relate to him. When we were there, he had personalities that he had to respect. Everybody had to be treated the same way on the roster. A role player sees that and knows he’s not any different. Now on that team, I’m not sure they have a personality that can uphold players to the Steeler standard.”
Of all the insights that have been shared that could logically explain how the situation has developed to the point it is now, McFadden’s reasoning might actually be the most rational.
With the retirement of Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel in 2015, the Steelers lost some of their most significant locker room leaders from over a decade. Each player personified the Pittsburgh way and without them there can be little question the Steelers lack some of the identity they once had. In their absence, a different brand of football had been allowed to develop with players like Ben Roethlisberger and Brown as team leaders, one that has not always been as conducive to team chemistry.
The now infamous Facebook Live incident happen the year the aforementioned players had left the team and it is hard to believe the whole fiasco occurs if they are all still in that locker room. With them gone, there can be few players Brown feels the same level of respect for, something his recent lack of communication with his teammates would seem to indicate.
For a younger generation of players, the tacit approval of Brown’s behavior by the coaching staff sets a precedent for the rest of the roster to follow, with Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell the more obvious examples of players who also felt it was acceptable to arrive late to practice or miss it altogether.
Art Rooney II appeared to acknowledge the team’s error in the way they had been handling their star receiver in a recent sit down with reporters, a failure that many within the organization are responsible for,
“The kind of bottom-line evaluation of that is this guy was a great football player in this league over multiple years,” Rooney said. “So, as I said before, were there maybe things that we would’ve liked to have done a little differently or would have liked him to have done a little differently? The answer is probably yes, but he’s one of the hardest-working players on the team, contributed to a lot of wins, and I think someday we’ll maybe understand better kind of what happened here the last week of the season but don’t really understand it right now.”
After so much time being allowed to act a certain way, it feels overly optimistic to believe the Steelers can draw a line in the sand with Brown and have any faith he will not cross it, especially when that line they want to draw is so far behind where he currently stands. It might be too late to put this particular genie back in the bottle.
But if Pittsburgh really does want to change the culture in the locker room, trading Brown to another team might actually give them a chance for a reset and send a message to the rest of the players that some behavior actually is unacceptable.
Fowler also appeared on the Rich Eisen show on Friday to talk about many of the points from his article on Friday. For those interested ...