The Antonio Brown saga has been discussed a lot over the last four years, and I think most people have made up their minds as to what they think happened and who they blame for the end results. But this week Antonio Brown appeared on The Pivot podcast with his former teammate Ryan Clark, and a lot of interesting comments and discussion came of it. Some of it is really helpful in piecing together some difficult times in Steelers’ history.
Ryan Clark and Antonio Brown
While Ryan Clark has had some pretty tough criticisms of Antonio Brown over the years, one thing I found interesting was Ryan Clark’s role in Antonio Brown’s early NFL career. In the podcast Antonio Brown frequently references his respect for Clark, for the intensity and energy he brought, but also for the help Clark extended to him when he was new to the team and the NFL. From helping Brown with finding trainers, getting rehab work done, to setting up a birthday party for the son Antonio Brown was raising on his own at the time, the discussion on the podcast frequently references that relationship.
But what started out as a mentor relationship wouldn’t stay great. Ryan Clark starts the podcast by apologizing for a number of events where he says he should have gone to Brown personally before talking publicly about him, and there is an undercurrent throughout the podcast where it seems that Brown felt betrayed by Clark, along with other Steeler players, specifically over one incident in training camp of 2012. While the event got some publicity at the time, details brought up in this podcast add a lot to the story, and may help Steeler fans understand more about the Steelers of that time.
Setting the stage
The 2011 Steelers went 12-4 before losing to Demaryius Thomas and the Denver Broncos in the playoffs, in the infamous Tim Tebow game. Looking back, that game was really the end of the Steelers great run that started in 2004. A team that went 79-39 over 8 seasons (67% win percentage), went 10-4 in the playoffs, winning two Super Bowls and appearing in a third while spending 6 of those 8 seasons ranked in the Top 4 on defense in both yards and points allowed, including 3 seasons where they ranked No. 1 in both. While playoff success was behind them, many of the players from those Super Bowl winning teams were still on the roster. The loss of one specific player who ended their career after the 2011 season matters to this story, James Farrior. With James Farrior retiring, the defense needed a new captain. Farrior had been the captain since 2007, and the Steelers would pick Brett Keisel in 2012 and Ryan Clark in 2013 to be captains after Farrior left.
That unprecedented run of success was coming to an end, and would do so in the form of back to back 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013. 2011 was also the last season Hines Ward would play for the Steelers, the departure of the 7-time Steeler captain left only Max Starks, Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger on offense who had been major participants in the Steelers last Super Bowl win only a few seasons before. That offseason the Steelers offered Mike Wallace a contract extension, and when he turned it down, deciding to play out his restricted free agent contract year in 2012 and enter unrestricted free agency afterwards. The Steelers in turn gave the contract to Antonio Brown.
In that same offseason the Steelers brought in Todd Haley to replace Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator. This change of offensive coordinator also matters a lot to this story. Fans will remember Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley’s relationship getting off to a rocky start with Roethlisberger unhappy with both Bruce Arians being gone and the offense Haley wanted to run. The team leadership was transitioning away from two long-term captains and great football leaders to new players, and on the offense, the leader everyone wanted to step up, Ben Roehtlisberger, was feuding with his offensive coordinator and would be criticized for his leadership in that time span by several Steelers, including Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.
It’s in that rocky setting Antonio Brown signed a $42 million dollar extension, a contract which was worth $3 million total dollars more than the one Troy Polamalu received the year before, after he had won the Defensive Player of the Year.
According to both Ryan Clark and Antonio Brown it was the very day Antonio Brown signed his extension and then joined his teammates in practice when the following happened.
An unnamed defender was lined up to cover Antonio Brown in one-on-one drills, and instead of covering him slapped him on the head to knock him off his route. An illegal move in the NFL, and not how anyone should practice playing defense. Antonio Brown lined back up for another rep and returned the favor, slapping the defender, getting open and catching the ball.
At this point Antonio Brown claims defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau started yelling at him, saying he can’t act that way in practice. It is not stated, but seems Antonio Brown was facing a respected veteran in the drill, and disrespect was part of the reason LeBeau was upset. I’m not completely certain, but from context it seems the unnamed player was Ike Taylor, though both Clark and Brown were careful to avoid involving names.
Whoever the defender was, when LeBeau confronted Brown, Brown replied (paraphrased by me) he would do the same to anyone who disrespected him, mentioning that if LeBeau came out on the field and slapped him he’d get the same back. Brown was upset and swearing at this point, and no one on the defense was going to let anyone get away with disrespecting a beloved coach like Dick LeBeau. A fight broke out, Troy Polamalu was fighting, defenders started airing grievances with the offense, in Ryan Clark’s own words, “It went bad”, and later stated that that was “a bad day.”
Clark was on the other side of the field, and as a leader of the defense, a man who Antonio Brown multiple times claims “ran the team” during this podcast, got involved. Clark says he heard Brown mention his $42 million dollar contract and yelled that “They shouldn’t have paid him, I knew it would change him.” This seems to have struck a long-term nerve with Brown, and that statement was one brought up multiple times by Brown.
This incident wasn’t just a fight at practice, the biggest contention between Clark and Brown in the podcast is why this fight occurred, with Antonio Brown claiming the problem was jealousy and Clark claiming it was Brown’s ego. We all know Brown’s ego was far from done causing problems, but that doesn’t mean it was the only thing causing problems.
The root of all kinds of evil
Remember when I stated that Antonio Brown’s extension was worth $3 million dollars more than the one Troy Polamalu had signed the year before? Troy was not just one of the highest paid Steelers, he was also one of the few players the Steelers extended the year before his contract ended, an honor reserved for quarterbacks and players at the level of James Farrior, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. Hines Ward never received a new contract before his previous one expired, neither had Ike Taylor, and Aaron Smith only had that honor once in his three contract extensions with the Steelers.
The Steelers made players play out their contracts, with exceptions made for only a select few players. Also, many Steelers had taken less money to stay on the Steelers and be a part of that great 2000s defense. I think fans can understand veteran defenders being upset when the Steelers gave Antonio Brown a contract extension with a year left on his rookie deal when Hines Ward had just retired and had been forced to wait to get a new contract until his was finished multiple times, including in 2009, only a few years before. Ike Taylor, who was most likely the player involved in the altercation with Brown, had been forced to wait, Ryan Clark himself had had to wait until his contract expired to get his new one in 2010. Only a few years later the team ditched that rule for a rookie contract receiver who had made the Pro Bowl as a returner.
As for Ryan Clark’s assertion that it was about Antonio Brown’s ego, I don’t think anyone would say Antonio Brown is a humble guy, but he’s a wide receiver, most of them are egotistical. It’s almost a requirement for the position. While I agree a lot of Brown’s issues with the teams he has played for stem from his ego, I think Brown was also right in saying the money he got made him a marked man for the rest of the team, particularly the defense.
Overall, I look at this situation as a moment which showed the changing team dynamics on the Steelers. The old leadership was gone, and that proud defense, which had been great for so long, was starting to break up. And on the offense, there were very few people who really valued what they had done, and the culture the older players had been a part of and valued so much.
Ben Roethlisberger would turn it around and become the leader the offense needed, but in 2012 he wasn’t that guy yet. Cameron Heyward would become a fantastic leader on the team eventually, but he was heading into his second year, and wouldn’t start a game until 2013. The amazing team Ryan Clark loved being a part of, the team that still defines his legacy, was going away. And here was this brash, young receiver who cared more about becoming the best player he could be and put things like the Steeler way, the legacy of the franchise and respect for the success of those 2000s teams a distant second to his own development.
The “Young Money Crew” was the future, and the old dogs didn’t like it at all. That all came to a head when Antonio Brown swore at LeBeau, one of the most loved and respected coaches in Steeler history. He did it on the same day he signed a contract which paid him as much, or more, than the defenders that had been to three Super Bowls and still couldn’t get the pay day Brown received.
It’s not hard to see why that situation got out of hand.
Does any of this matter today?
It’s all water under the bridge, does anyone really care about 2012 now? We all know how the Antonio Brown saga ended with the Steelers, and Brown certainly wasn’t the hero of that story. I do think it is interesting to be able to flesh out that season a bit, and see how a team which had been a tight knit, family-like team for so long fell apart and saw a massive decrease in success.
But also, look at where the Steelers are right now. Ben Roethlisberger retired, and on his way out sounded a little Hines Ward-esque lamenting the lack of connection to the past, and respect for Steeler traditions. The defense is a top unit in the NFL, has plenty of leadership, and could easily be a Super Bowl caliber defense if the offense could carry it’s own weight. Meanwhile, on the offense there are serious questions about who the leaders of this offense will be moving forward. Right now the longest tenured Steelers on offense who is currently under contract is Mason Rudolph at four years, and he has yet to be named a starter at any point in his tenure.
While hopefully no Steelers player ends up having a relationship with the franchise like Antonio Brown has had, the lesson of 2012, and being careful who you put in powerful positions with contracts is a good lesson, and hopefully one the Steelers navigate better that they did in 2012.