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The Steelers got “Fair Compensation” for Antonio Brown...barely

Steeler Nation is upset because the real Antonio Brown was not what we thought. That is what killed his value.

NFL: Antonio Brown-Madden 19 Cover Athlete Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

First, let’s translate the picks that Pittsburgh received into a single number. I have been saying for months that Pittsburgh should walk away from any deal with an average value less than a 2nd Round pick, with questions about whether even that much would be on offer. More on that later. First, did the team get that much value?

In exchange for the rights to Antonio Brown Oakland forked over the pics at 3:02 and 5:03. The NFL draft trade chart sets the value of those picks at 260 and 35 points, for a combined value of 295 points. The K.C. pick at 2:29 is valued at 292 points and the Chargers’ 2:28 pick at 300 points, so the answer is pretty easy. Pittsburgh received value equal to a very late 2nd round pick.

Next question: How in the world can I argue that a HOF Wide Receiver is worth no more than the 29th pick of the 2nd Round? It comes down to this: the Antonio Brown of 2019 is not what people thought he was in 2018. Imagine if he’d been in a car crash and had some hideous injury with doubts about his ability to recover in full. No one would challenge an argument that his post-crash value is far less than it would have been beforehand. Why should we treat his development of Locker Room Cancer all that differently?

The following description summarizes what most of Steeler Nation (including me) thought about this young man going in to 2018:

A HOF receiving talent ever since 2013, good for 100+ catches and 1,500 yards like clockwork. His stats look like Jerry Rice’s; his work ethic looks like Jerry Rice’s; his skill set and body type look a lot like Jerry Rice’s; and it’s fair to hope he will play through his 30’s at a Jerry Rice level. Holy Cow! That’s a Top 3 Wide Receiver by anyone’s measure.

In the locker room he is an inspiration, with the best work ethic on the team and maybe in the entire NFL. That is the special talent that raised him up from a mere 6th round pick: hard work, dedication to his craft, and dedication to being a team player. When Mike Wallace left to chase the money, AB stayed, worked harder than anyone else, grew as a player, and the team repaid him with an early extention. When Manny Sanders left to chase the money, AB stayed, continued to work, continued to grow, etc.. When Lev Bell got nutty about the money the same thing happened. AB stayed and the team rewarded him again with the biggest WR contract ever seen to that date, mostly front-loaded.

Off the field he isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but who cares? He’s an emotion-driven man, a little broken from his terrible youth but basically sweet and loyal to everyone but the multiple women in his life. And who can blame him for that? The silliness like driving 100 mph on an empty road can be forgiven because he was racing to a team meeting. Same thing for acting out on his frustrations by kicking a gatorade jug (which is sort of funny in a way). This is a man driven by the desire to be great. So great that he won’t just be in the Hall of Fame, but will be debated as a potential GOAT. Men driven by that kind of genuine, outside passion can’t be judged like the rest of us for human peccadillos. And since he’s driven by a desire to be the GOAT, we can assume he will do all the team-oriented things needed to help him get there.

The bottom line is that he’s a HOF talent, has a great and almost telepathic bond with his HOF Quarterback, and will be worth every penny he got paid after another few years to recoup his signing bonus.

Sound about right? That was certainly my opinion a year ago. We all knew that was a carefully crafted public image. We aren’t morons. Still, I live in the Burgh, one hears the rumors, and in AB’s case they all came down to real life IQ deficits and some charmingly childish emotional outbursts. I never once heard him accused of being a foul human being, and I can promise you that hasn’t been the case for several of his teammates over the years.

But let’s compare the above to the new picture we have of Antonio Brown after experiencing the past several months:

A HOF receiving talent ever since 2013, good for 100+ catches and 1,500 yards like clockwork. His stats look like Jerry Rice’s; his work ethic looks like Jerry Rice’s; his skill set and body type look a lot like Jerry Rice’s; and it’s fair to hope he will play through his 30’s at a Jerry Rice level. Holy Cow! That’s a Top 3 Wide Receiver by anyone’s measure. [NO CHANGE AT ALL]

In the locker room he is a divider, not an adder or a multiplier. He insists on working alone, away from his teammates and sharing nothing but his on-field stats (so long as no one cuts into his on-field glory). For years the coaches have only gotten him to play at all by playing up to his ever-inflating ego. Worse, his driving emotion has not been a desire to be the GOAT but rather a narcissistic need to be called the GOAT and to be treated like he already is. Thus his appetite for trappings - women, money, praise, stats, etc. - was literally bottomless, and only grew the more it got fed. The more he accomplished, earned, and was praised for, the worse he got to deal with - so much so that many people positively dreaded what would happen when he finally cashed in on the big time money. We heard those worries when he got paid and dismissed them as jealousy. Now we can see they were right.

The moment he got that second big contract, AB went from selfish and entitled to selfish, out of control, and destructive to both himself and to the team. The curve dipped ever downward until he started missing practices on purpose, dumping on his teammates in public, giving his coaches the proverbial finger, blaming others for every imagined slight, engaging in public temper tantrums, and finally getting suspended for the final, supremely critical game of the year. And then - LITERALLY - showing up for the game in a fur coat before turning his back and walking out on his teammates in front of the entire world.

Losing may have played a part of it, but his divisive conduct may also be the reason why the supposed-to-be-legendary offense never clicked. Think back to your pre-2018 expectations. The defense lived up to those and maybe a little better. The only real slam we have comes down to too many points against on final drives when the game was on the line, and there are some reasonable explanations for why that happens. By contrast the offense failed far more profoundly when measured against pre-season expectations. Pittsburgh’s offense repeatedly left many games close well into the 4th quarter against opponents who should have been smashed before the end of the 3rd. That failure, and the missed field goals, is what proved to be our Achilles Heel. Was Antonio Brown’s behind the scenes activity to blame for this? If it is even partly true the problem would have only gotten worse in 2019, 2020, and for all the foreseeable future.

As for his example to the younger players... Brrrr.

Outside the locker room it gets even worse. 2019 has proven that he’s not just a dim bulb and an overgrown child. Antonio Brown is a man without honor. I grew up in NYC and understand what that means, because men like that are well known in the metropolis that houses this nation’s financial elite. I could tell you tales about more than one notorious “financial genius” who made his fortune by conduct exactly parallel to what AB has done: signing contracts, waiting until the other side does it’s part, and then “renegotiating” when the leverage has shifted and the other side is most vulnerable. “Go ahead and sue me! But don’t be upset about it. It’s just business, and [my] business is booming!”

There is one real estate tycoon in particular whose name has become an adjective for this approach. If I’ve heard it once in my 30-year legal career, I’ve heard it a dozen times: “The terms are okay but the structure is not. I need some protection so I can’t get [NAME]d down the road...” The philosophy of these men is so clear and so open that I can quote it from memory! “Contract, shmontract. Anyone who fails to cheat simply isn’t trying hard enough! Cheat on your wife, girlfriend, social friends, business partners... Who cares if the financial profit outweighs the financial cost? Right and wrong are just words employed by suckers who gripe after the fact, and smart people like me who use them to puff the sales pitch. Only money matters in the end.”

That’s a very different picture! Player #1 is worth a Top 10 draft pick, or at least a Top 15. Maybe a 1st and a player, or a 1st and a package of other picks. It’s hard to even come up with a number because there is no market.

Player #2 is a case of addition by subtraction. He will produce on the field but his ultimate value to the team may be less than what that production costs in other areas. Being a nice guy to hang out with or to interview has nothing to do with it. Terrell Owens, Ochocinco and Keyshawn left friends behind wherever they played as well. They also left shattered locker rooms and no trophies whatsoever. Speaking of which, Pittsburgh hasn’t brought home a trophy in quite some time. Coincidence?

Ryan Shazier is Player #1, with an injury that may never heal. Antonio Brown turns out to be Player #2. which one is likelier to help the Pittsburgh Steelers win a Super Bowl?

Who is to blame for this fiasco? I hope the above makes my personal opinion clear to all. I believe in quaint, old fashioned things like honor, honesty, sportsmanship, being a good teammate, and living up to your contracts. I believe that those who don’t are scum. I won’t vote for them, and I certainly don’t want them on my team. But maybe that’s why I still have to worry about my retirement. There’s no denying it’s a tactic that works if you pick the right moment to slide your knife in the erstwhile partner’s kidney. As the Steelers have now discovered.

This is why I put 99.3% of the blame on one side of this equation. The Steeler coaches and the F.O. are guilty of nothing more than this: they knew they were dealing with a narcissist; they knew things could go terribly bad if his ego ran amok; they knew that money would feed that ego and age give it some urgency; and knowing all that, they failed to adequately protect the team against someone who might be willing to smile, sign on the dotted line, and then slide in the shiv when the time was right. But I can’t honestly say that I would have done much better. It is, I’m afraid, the basic risk that comes to all men who care about honor and believe in right versus wrong. They are taken for suckers by those who lack those limitations.

Final question: Why add the word “barely” to the title of this piece if I am so happy to see the team-destroying ego headed out the door? Simple. It’s a matter of drawing the line as a business matter.

Remember that I have said for months that I would prefer the Steelers to keep Antonio Brown if they were offered any value less than a 2nd round pick. I said that because there’s value to drawing the line and sending this message loud and clear: “scr#w with us and we will break you even if it hurts us just as bad in the short term. Treat us with honor, and we will reciprocate. That is the Steeler Way; the path of honor.”

Yes, the legal warfare would utterly destroy Antonio Brown’s career. Yes, the blowback in the locker room would probably destroy the 2019 season. Yes, it might cost the 2020 run as well. But at some point you have to punch the bully back or you can only expect to see copycats until the end of time! All of those costs would have been worth the price - to me - if there wasn’t some sweetener to justify leaving the bully alone. For me the value equated to a Round 2 pick. Oakland forked over the value of a Round 2 pick - barely. And that is why I call this deal “fair” even though I hate every atom of how it went down, and why.

Give me another would-be bully who won’t bring in that value and we’ll revisit the situation. In spades.