clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Analyzing Antonio Brown, and the biggest heel turn in Steelers history

A theory on how we got from All-Pro Steeler to hated enemy.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Nothing comes close to this.

Antonio Brown went from the fast track towards the Hall of Honor and being one of the greatest players in franchise history to Yinzer enemy numero uno in less than a year’s time. There are several notable moments in Franchise history where players that were loved were suddenly not loved. Here are the biggest ones to the best of my memory.

Franco Harris famously finished his career in Seattle. It seemed to matter to people, but the Steelers knew he was done while he wasn’t ready to admit it yet. It’s understandable, but just a little sad he didn’t finish his NFL career only wearing the black and gold.

Rod Woodson winning a Super Bowl for the Ravens (yes “for”, not “with” as they wouldn’t have come close to winning that Super Bowl without Rod) felt crappy, but not like a middle finger to the face betrayal. Rod can be forgiven because football is a business, and he chose business over Pittsburgh . We can take it.

James Harrison orchestrated his way out of Pittsburgh with the Steelers holding on to him until after we played the Patriots because they assumed the Pats would sign him. But he wasn’t playing for us, and he didn’t cost us anything after he left. James did almost nothing for them and all he did was put a big ugly smear on his reputation in Pittsburgh. He didn’t really hurt the Steelers by leaving.

I would rate this above even “He Who Shall Not Be Named” in Super Bowl XXX, barring concrete evidence that he was paid by Jerry Jones someday coming to light. Because, while that cost us a Super Bowl, it wasn’t intentional. He didn’t grab a microphone after the game and yell “Take that Pittsburgh!” We just don’t speak about him.

I want to dig into something I thought about a good bit last season and share it with you. It may just be the part of me that loves going on ghost tours and looks forward to the Klecksburg UFO festival every year (can’t wait to see the movie- it looks awful in all the right ways), but when I look at the timeline of events I think things start to paint a pretty clear picture.

What I’m not going to do is try to figure out what happened to Antonio Brown. The only thing I want to say is that CTE is a degenerative condition that takes years to show up. If you think the hits he took from Burfict caused this, that’s not CTE. That would be a severe concussion causing personality change, which is a thing. CTE is a long term degeneration. Semantics? Yes. But using the right words is better than being wrong.

So whether you choose to think it was money and fame bringing out dormant sides of himself, personal issues coming to a head and bringing out some self-destructive tendencies, feeling like he finally had the power to kick other people around a bit, or brain scrambling compliments of the now former Yinzer enemy #1 Vontaze Burfict, I really don’t care.

Largely, the reason I don’t care is because we have reports that Brown was this guy long before 2018. Some in the media even wrote about it, but in those days we didn’t care. As long as the Steelers win and it stays behind closed doors, fans don’t really care. What I want to look at is how it bubbled over, and I think I have a plausible explanation.

Let’s start in 2012. After a really good season in 2011 for both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Wallace holds out, rejects the Steelers’ contract offer and the Steelers sign Antonio Brown. Mike Wallace plays out that season but neither Wallace nor Brown put up good numbers. After that season, Wallace and Bruce Arians leave while taking Scottie Montgomery, AB’s wide receiver’s coach, with him.

In comes Todd Haley and Richard Mann. Todd Haley is brought in to do what Ben’s buddy Bruce couldn’t which is to get Ben to play into a system and stop playing playground ball while taking so many hits. Ben and Haley don’t get along, but Antonio Brown thrives, accounting for just under 35% of team passing yards and 29% of passing touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl as a WR for the first time, and coming in second to young phenom Josh Gordon for receiving yards league wide in 2013.

The next 4 years would build on that, not only making the Pro Bowl but earning four straight first-team all-pro designations in the most productive five year stretch for any wide receiver ever.

Todd Haley ran his offense through Bell and Brown. Ben Roethlisberger was contained, forced to make reads, and get rid of the ball quickly. There was no more “take a look around and find something you like Ben.” Meanwhile, Richard Mann took every opportunity to talk about AB. There isn’t a single wide receiver drafted by the Steelers that didn’t lead Richard Mann to say something like, “We’ll get him in that room and he’ll work. AB works, he’ll work.”, or “AB had trouble with drops. He drills, and this new guy will drill too.” Everything was through AB. Brown was the leader of the WR’s and the focus of the offense. Meanwhile, he had two “old school” coaches. His coordinator was a guy who wore out his welcome at every job by being a jerk and pushing players too hard. Richard Mann was an old school southern coach.

Roethlisberger bristled, but Antonio Brown thrived.

Fast forward to 2017. The Steelers have a quarterback that is talking about retirement and a phenomenal offensive line coach taking interviews for head coaching jobs. This was when my eyebrows were first raised. On January 17th, 2018 the Steelers announced that Todd Haley would not have his contract renewed. Meanwhile, Richard Mann understandably took the opportunity to go back into retirement. Any new offensive coordinator would probably want to hire his own wide receivers’ coach. Mann had been retired for three years before coming to coach the Steelers, and has stayed retired ever since.

But something else happened that day which, in my mind, doesn’t appear to be just a coincidence. On January 17, 2018, hours after announcing Todd Haley would not be renewed, Mike Munchak withdrew his name from the list of candidates for the job of head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Something which also stands out that from that day was Ben Roethlisberger has not mentioned retirement since. Instead, he talks about how much he loves playing the game and how long he hopes to keep doing it. I think the Steelers were in a position where an all-time great offensive line coach and their franchise quarterback were both unwilling to continue working with coach Haley. This is not hard to believe considering Haley’s reputation as someone people don’t want to play for or work with for very long. But when the franchise chose Roethlisberger and Munchak over Haley, Antonio Brown’s situation changed a lot as well.

When Randy Fichtner took over, he ran a very different offense which was apparent from the very begining. Fichtner wasn’t running as many plays for Antonio Brown, he was instead using the focus on Brown to take advantage of other match ups. If a team wanted to triple team Brown, go ahead. The Steelers had other targets that were open because of it. It wasn’t a bad strategy because Ben had matured into a leader and someone who watches film. Roethlisberger didn’t need to be reigned in and forced to learn to play the right way anymore. Fichtner just let Ben run the offense.

The problem was this offense didn’t feed the ball to Antonio Brown. No wide receiver beats a triple team on their own. Randy Moss couldn’t do it in Oakland, but he thrived in Minnesota and New England because those teams had other options so he couldn’t be triple-covered. Brown wasn’t going to be the best option, because defenses weren’t allowing him to be. Ben still forced him the ball, but he wasn’t getting open and he wasn’t catching passes like he used to.

Another big point of evidence is the Week 1 game against Cleveland. Roethlisberger wasn’t on target with his throws, and the offense was sputtering. At the half, Antonio Brown had been targeted 5 times with 2 receptions for 14 total yards. To make matters worse, two of the targets to Brown were intercepted.

After the half, the offense started running the ball more and put in a few plays that were more like what Brown was used to running under Haley. The Steelers were able to move the ball and took a 14 point lead.

With the score 21-7, the Steelers had the ball and it was third and four. The Browns blitzed as Brown ran a drag route, Roethlisberger hit him quickly and he ran for 19 yards and a first down. After doing a first down pose and the whistle blowing to signal the end of the third quarter, Antonio Brown sees Todd Haley on the Browns sideline and walks toward him. Brown gives Haley a hug and he responds with two pats on the back.

Neither of the two would find much happiness in their jobs that year. Todd Haley would be fired along with Hue Jackson after the Week 8 loss to Pittsburgh and is currently out of the NFL. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger started talking up JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Antonio Brown drama kept ratcheting higher and higher. Some key moments in the 2018 soap opera included Roethlisberger telling Brown he didn’t have to throw him the ball, Ben saying the team should have just thrown to JuJu three times on the goal line in Denver, and Brown coming in second to Smith-Schuster in receiving yards which was not a small issue in my mind.

Cliff harris is still a punk! did a great piece on Randy Fichtner’s offense from preseason game 4. One thing he shows in his article is how players are going to move around, making the offense one which doesn’t focus on any one player. One can imagine how well Antonio Brown would enjoy an offense where every receiving option is equally represented and Big Ben gets to find the best option. In Todd Haley’s offense, this would not be the case. Plays were designed for Brown, and Roethlisberger would have had to scuttle the whole team if he refused to throw to AB. It was a big change.

It is my opinion, the Steelers were faced with a choice following the 2017 season. They were forced to choose either Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Munchak, or Todd Haley. I believe they made the right choice. It is also my opinion that when they chose Ben Roethlisberger over Todd Haley which put Randy Fichtner in charge of the offense, they also chose Ben Roethlisberger over Antonio Brown. At least this was the choice in AB’s mind.

To be clear, I’m not blaming the Steelers. I believe they made the right choices. I just think Todd Haley’s personality, offensive design, and relationship with Roethlisberger fed Antonio Brown enough to keep the “crazy” down to a level the Steelers could live with. But keeping Brown happy was not worth losing Roethlisberger and valuable offensive coaches.

Now Steelers’ fans are left sitting and watching to see if Bill Belichick can recapture what Todd Haley and Richard Mann pulled off: keeping Antonio Brown’s ego fed enough while giving him the right leadership so they can focus his energies toward the football field.

I will be surprised if the Patriots will pull it off. If Belichick can make it work, will they have success as a team in that setting?

Bill Belichick didn’t win a Super Bowl with Randy Moss, and the Steelers didn’t win one with Antonio Brown. Sometimes the player’s talent and statistics are not what say they are worth.