The Steelers, to the surprise of absolutely no one, are in the headlines once again thanks to a bubbling caldron of unrest and contempt boiling over and perfusing the looking room with animus. Here, for your perusal, is an abbreviated timeline of the events that have transpired over the past week and a half:
-Wednesday, December 26: According to multiple reports, star receiver Antonio Brown suddenly erupts during a morning walkthrough and—somewhat ironically—hurls a football at Ben Roethlisberger. Brown leaves and doesn’t return to practice later that afternoon.
-December 27 through December 29: Brown is a phantom. He skips practices, meetings, Saturday’s walkthrough, and, apparently, an MRI meant to diagnose a knee injury that may or may not have ever existed. Brown, as far as we know, ghosts communication attempts by coaches and teammates. Publicly, Brown is listed on the injury report, putting his status for that Sunday’s must-win finale against Cincinnati in question; Mike Tomlin “leaves the door open” for Brown to participate in those proceedings.
-Sunday, December 30: Brown, adorned in a fur coat that cost more than my student loan debt, appears on the sideline. He does not play. Later, it’s revealed that Brown may have bounced at halftime. Tomlin cannot confirm nor deny this. The Steelers win 16-13, but miss the postseason for the first time since 2013 thanks to Baltimore’s win against Cleveland.
-Monday, December 31: The first reports outlining the discord between Brown and the Steelers surface. The sports universe explodes. That evening, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle tweets at Brown; Brown quotes it with a starstruck emoji. On Twitter, Brown begins following Kittle, along with 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and safety Adrian Colbert. He probably does likewise on Instagram. I don’t know—I don’t have Instagram.
-Tuesday, January 1: More reports surface. Brown’s apparently asked for a trade (provided, of course, that you trust the reporting of a single national reporter—one who stands by their reporting despite the head coach of the team on which he’s reporting plainly specifying that a trade was not requested—and not, you know, the hordes of men and women with their boots on the ground in Pittsburgh, but I’ll digress). Brown maintains radio silence.
-Wednesday, January 2: Tomlin has his end-of-season press conference, and, boy, is it a doozy. Tomlin confirms many of the aforementioned reports—chiefly, that Brown did indeed skip meetings and practices and that he hadn’t spoken to Brown directly since the initial incident—but refutes the report that Brown formally requested a trade. He also delivers this bombshell: The morning of the Bengals game, he fielded a call from Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus—who, I have to point out, oversaw Terrell Owens’ exodus from the Philadelphia Eagles and did little to abate it. The way Tomlin tells it, Rosenhaus relayed that Brown hoped to play that evening despite having missed a half-week’s worth of preparation. Tomlin informed Rosenhaus that that’s not how things operate in these here parts, and that was the end of that. During Tomlin’s press conference, Brown and erstwhile Steeler James Harrison teased a forthcoming exclusive interview on Instagram Live.
As of this writing, Antonio Brown is still a technically a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it’s unclear where he stands spiritually. I’m not generally one to view social media gaslighting as gospel or even a reliable qualitative measure of what’s happened, what’s currently happening, or what’s going to happen, but, as Shannon masterfully opined earlier, the 49ers, with their young, talented quarterback, their offensive-minded head coach, and—most attractively—their dearth of receiving talent and with whom Brown is openly flirting, are a fine, fine organization with which a 30-something in-their-prime but staring-down-the-loaded-barrel-of-inevitable-finality receiver can finish their career. If Brown sincerely believes that he can surpass Jerry Rice’s manifold career achievements, he won’t find a better destination in which to chase them than San Francisco.
It’s important to mention that, officially, Brown can’t be traded anywhere until March at the earliest—which is to say that, in the time between now and then, perhaps all this turbulence and animosity will blow over and everything will be fine. And, you know, it sure would be great if that happened because Antonio Brown is a freakin’ ridiculous professional football player who elevates Pittsburgh’s offense to championship-caliber heights—and if you wanna downplay the significance of Brown’s role and instead Stan only for Ben Roethlisberger or “the system,” that’s perfectly fine, but please keep in mind that the offense’s high standing among the league’s most volcanic outfits during Brown’s prime years is not a coincidence—and, selfishly, because Antonio Brown is my favorite player and it would make me sad to watch him leave. I would very much strongly prefer for Antonio Brown to play for the Steelers next season.
Having said that, voluntarily bailing on practices and meetings and leaving coaches and teammates on read in the run-up to the most important game of the season is kind of unprecedented and I really don’t know if there’s any way to come back that, at least gracefully. I think, generally, the “united NFL locker room” sentiment is B.S. (think about your own workplace; do you really like all of your co-workers?) and is largely just for show, but when a teammate voluntarily bails on practices and meetings and ghosts teammates and coaches in the run-up to THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE SEASON (!!!), like, what is the protocol? Is there protocol? Do they collectively agree to banish him? This entire situation is so singularly and specularly perplexing that I’d wager mostly everyone in the locker room is in uncharted waters.
For Brown to have any chance of returning to the Steelers, it’s flatly apparent that he needs to clear the air with Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, whose...I guess we’ll call it their “likeminded vision for the present and future”...does not align with Brown’s; hence, the beef. Roethlisberger, speaking on his weekly radio show Tuesday, downplayed the significance of the incendiary event that apparently sparked [motions hands broadly] whatever the heck we wanna call this and iterated that Brown is one of his closest friends off the field, which is hilarious because he confirmed in the same interview that he had not spoken with Brown since the day after that practice. (As an aside, if Roethlisberger sincerely believes that we believe that a) he and Brown are best pals and b) the events that unfolded during Wednesday’s practice were not significant, then he’s either the biggest idiot in the world or he thinks we collectively are the biggest idiots in the world—in fairness to him and his team-engineered public relations savviness, I’m guessing it’s the latter). I realize the two-time Super Bowl-winning, future Hall of Fame quarterback is about as close to an unassailable entity as there is in Pittsburgh, but I don’t think it’s, like, necessarily incorrect or unreasonable to posit that Roethlisberger himself is a primary source of Brown’s acrimony. I truly don’t mean to understate the immense gravity of Brown’s recent actions—or, for that matter, blame Ben Roethlisberger for the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers—but it’s worth remembering that, earlier this season, Roethlisberger indicted Brown for running the wrong route during a play against Denver, thereby causing the game-ending interception. (Regardless of whether or not there was veracity to that claim, it was definitely a little icky to drag a teammate like that.) Perhaps a minor, seemingly inconsequential kind of thing like that set the wheels of contempt in motion and the similarly insignificant practice event was Brown’s breaking point. I think it would behoove Ben to have a sit-down with Brown should the opportunity arise, and they both ought to be perfectly honest and transparent with one another.
Getting back on the same page as Tomlin is gonna be a whole other thing. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Tomlin spoke like a man who was 1,000 percent done with locker room spectacle. Indeed, he seems steadfastly committed to dragging this current iteration of the Steelers kicking and screaming into a new era of respectability and professionalism, collateral damage and casualties be damned. That Rosenhaus called Tomlin to inform him that Brown planned on playing clearly signaled that Brown thought he could blithely ignore the un-fun aspects of his professional responsibilities and show up on game-day ready to boogie; that Tomlin shot this suggestion down and stuck with his decision to withhold Brown could indicate that he, too, has reached his breaking point.
Of course, in addition to Tomlin and Roethlisberger, Brown at some point will need to have a face-to-face with general manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II. That’s a lot of bridges to mend in not a lot of time, and none of this takes into consideration that Brown would eventually need to address his Steelers teammates. At this point, maybe it would be easier for Brown to kick rocks down to Miami until March and try to force a trade than sit through all these awkward and contentious meetings.
Until about 10 days ago, the thought of the Steelers readily parting ways with Antonio Brown, the best receiver in the history of franchise that’s seen numerous all-time greats navigate its corridors, was unimaginable. In light of what’s occurred since then, though, I would not be at all shocked to see Brown playing elsewhere in 2019.
(With all of that said, I want him back, dang it.)