I know many of you probably clicked on this article just to scroll down and vent your frustration that a Steelers website is talking about Antonio Brown in 2022. I get it. But as a lover of Steelers history, I found a lot of things in Antonio Brown’s appearance on The Pivot podcast with Ryan Clark fascinating. I think some of the topics and conversation help explain the culture and mindset of a team in transition and I think it helps show why some of the moves the Steelers were made around that 2012 season as well as revealing a lot about what happened to Antonio Brown, one of the handful of great receivers the Pittsburgh Steelers have had.
This is my second article based on that podcast, the first covered the 2012 season, looking at the situation surrounding Brown’s big extension and the problems that came with it.
Bruce Arians and Antonio Brown
Around the 16 minute mark of the podcast, Antonio Brown starts a series of “only you and I know” statements directed to Ryan Clark, saying a lot of things that people outside the team didn’t know, because it stayed in house. The major focus of this section is the Steelers offensive coordinator at the time, Bruce Arians. Antonio Brown blames Arians for him only starting 3 only games in his Pro Bowl 2011 season, when he was a 1000 yard receiver, calls out Arians for saying that he wasn’t smart enough to play the X receiver, and states that it took Ben Roethlisberger intervening and telling Arians that he needed to play Brown more to get Antonio Brown a real shot. Ryan Clark nods in agreement throughout this segment.
Browns account lines up well with what we see statistically in the 2011 Steelers season. That 2011 season Brown started slow, catching only 18 of 39 targets (46.2%) for 262 yards in the first 6 games. Brown mentions on the podcast that he didn’t start playing until Week 7, and while he was on the field and averaging 6.5 targets a game for those first 6 weeks, the rest of the season Antonio Brown exploded, catching 60% of his 85 targets for 846 yards, a ridiculous 9.95 yards per target.
It was after Week 7 that Mike Wallace’s numbers dropped off as well. Through seven games, Wallace had 730 yards and 5 touchdowns, a ridiculous pace that would project to 1,773 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. But after the Week 7 game where both Wallace and Brown went off, Wallace’s numbers dropped substantially and he only gained 463 yards and scored 3 touchdowns in the next 9 games. With Ryan Clark nodding agreement to Brown’s statements about Arians, I think the timeline is pretty clear. Heading into Week 7, Ben Roethlisberger had had enough of Arians keeping Brown in his personal dog house, and Arians was forced to play Brown. Antonio Brown’s career started to take off at that point, to the detriment of Mike Wallace’s numbers.
It was that offseason that the Steelers decided to not retain Arians, in a move that, at the time, looked like the Rooney’s overwriting Tomlin. Todd Haley was brought in, Antonio Brown was given a big contract, and a season of chaos and disunity ensued.
After the 2012 season, Mike Tomlin hired Richard Mann, an old-school southern football coach that drilled hard, pushed his players to work on their game, and constantly talked up Antonio Brown’s work ethic. When a young receiver was drafted and the media would ask about an issue that receiver had, Mann consistently replied that they would bring the young man in and work on it, always, and I mean always, adding that “AB works, (player x) is going to work.” This makes a lot of sense to me, and it continues to be my position that the reason Antonio Brown and the Steelers worked as long as they did was because of Richard Mann’s approach to handling Antonio Brown.
It’s all about Respect
Antonio Brown shows a constant desire to be respected, and a constant sensitivity to disrespect. When the 2012 camp brawl happened, it was sparked by Antonio Brown informing Dick LeBeau that Brown would not let anyone disrespect him and get away with it. Brown’s work ethic is unquestionable by anyone who has paid even minor attention to his career and what his teammates and coaches have said about him, and he believes he deserves respect for that work and his accomplishments.
He got that respect in 2011 from Ben Roethlisberger, and for many years after, Ben Roethlisberger would stand up for Brown to the media, often taking blame for plays that went poorly and saying typical Roethlisberger statements like “I need to do a better job getting him the ball.” Meanwhile, Todd Haley ran his offense through Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. A lot of Haley’s offense was designed to get Brown open despite him being double and triple covered. Along with this, his position coach was constantly building up Brown’s work ethic and talking highly of him to the media. Antonio Brown was thriving, or as he would say, “Business is booming.” When Todd Haley and Richard Mann left after the 2017 season, the offense changed.
Randy Fichtner was a quarterback’s coach, Ben Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator, and he ran a quarterback-friendly offense that wasn’t built around getting Antonio Brown open in spite of the coverage. In Fichtner’s offense, if Antonio Brown was triple-covered, that meant less coverage elsewhere, so throw the ball elsewhere.
Brown’s stats show the change. During Richard Mann’s time on the Steelers, Antonio Brown caught 67.8% of his targets and posted a 9.1 yards per target mark. He was an elite receiver. Through the first ten games of 2018, Brown’s catch rate dropped to 56.9% and his yards per target fell to 7.4. That’s not elite, that’s below average. Meanwhile, on the other side of the formation, JuJu Smith-Schuster was feasting in the wake of the coverage focus on Brown, catching 68.8% of his targets for 9.3 yards per target.
The Steelers re-implemented a number of Haley’s plays for Brown down the stretch, and Brown’s numbers picked up in the last six games. But while this is going on, the relationship between Antonio Brown and the Steelers was falling apart. Gone is Richard Mann, gone is Todd Haley, gone is the offense built for him, gone is the constant building up of his work ethic and leadership of the receivers, and his production is down. At the same time, Ben Roethlisberger is letting Brown know that he’s had enough of the drama, and if Brown can’t handle it, he can always throw the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster. He went from the center of the world, where everyone respected him, to being an expendable player.
Another interesting comment from Antonio Brown on The Pivot podcast is when he talks about his decision to leave the Steelers. Obviously this is Brown telling it from his viewpoint years after the fact, but it is still interesting to see where his mind still dwells on that subject. He talks about Hines Ward, and how he was there for the change in Hines Ward’s relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. That is a valid point.
In 2009 Hines Ward led the Steelers in receptions with 95, his 11th-straight season leading the team in receptions. In 2010 that ended. Ward fell behind Mike Wallace in targets and receptions. Antonio Brown was there for that. We don’t know how Ward or Roethlisberger handled that change in the relationship because they kept it behind closed doors. But Hines Ward’s willingness to criticize Roethlisberger’s work ethic and leadership was on display late in his career and immediately afterwards. Ward had always had a lot of pride, there may have been some behind the scenes frustration or anger that they kept in-house and dealt with, we don’t know. What we do know is that Antonio Brown would have been there for that, and whatever happened, that change still resonates with him today.
With Ben Roethlisberger targeting JuJu Smith-Schuster more, and his relationship with Brown decaying, Antonio Brown says he saw the writing on the wall and decided it was best for him to transition to a different situation. Obviously Brown doesn’t go into details on that subject. I can’t imagine even he could spin his actions into him being the good guy with how bad his time in Pittsburgh ended.
Another interesting note is about the 2015 Steelers and the hit from Vontez Burfict in the playoffs. Antonio Brown had no complaints about the play, instead he was focused on the Denver game the next week, when he was in concussion protocol. From Brown’s account, he wanted to travel with the team and be on the sideline during the game, and the team told him to stay home. Antonio Brown cites this as another instance of jealousy, where the team and it’s other star players didn’t want to be upstaged by the cameras focusing on Brown on the sideline.
While Brown’s account falls right in-line with his interpretation of anything negative towards him being based on jealousy, it does show that the team may have already been viewing Antonio Brown as a problem while he was in the middle of his all-time great run.
The Money, the Ring, and the bitter end.
One last segment in the podcast that I want to talk about comes when one of the other hosts of the podcast calls out Antonio Brown for the money he left behind in Oakland when all he needed to do was show up for Week 1 to get a big chunk of guaranteed money. Instead Brown got into a fight with the Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and was released on September 7th, two days before the first game of the season.
Antonio Brown responds that it was never about the money, it was about winning. And winning isn’t just referring to the number in the wins column for Antonio Brown, is was also about culture. In Brown’s comments throughout the podcast, he talks about the Steelers winning and being great when there was comrade and the team was tight-knit like a family. He was there for the Steelers 2010 season when the team was largely a bunch of players that had played together for years and had success. Two years later he was the focal point of that culture and family feel falling apart. Brown doesn’t seem to be able to see his own role in that change, instead blaming other players being jealous of him. But while it doesn’t seem that he understood how to build that kind of culture, he recognized the value of it and wanted it. And that leads to him leaving Oakland and ending up with Tom Brady.
His response, when pressured, to the question of why he couldn’t just get to Week 1 to get that money says a lot.
That was a decision I had to make, if I wanted the (money) it was there, I didn’t want that, I wanted something greater for myself. So I went to the Patriots, met with Tom Brady, and look, I became a champion. When Ryan Clark and the boys walk in the room, I’m in those rooms, not everybody in those rooms.
Seeing throughout the interview how much Antonio Brown values respect, and being recognized for his accomplishments, this makes sense. Antonio Brown wasn’t a player who could help a team build the kind of culture that leads to winning, but he understood how important that culture was to winning, and he wanted that championship. His line about being in the room with Ryan Clark and other players who won a Super Bowl really stands out. I can imagine at some point when Brown’s head was starting to get a bit big for his shoulders, at least some Steelers told him that he hadn’t done anything, that on this team you rate success in championships, not stats.
As a rookie, he joined a team that had a championship culture, and two Super Bowl wins on their records. He was there when it fell apart, and had a hand in it. Then when he left the Steelers, he was able to find that by joining Tom Brady. He talks about Tom Brady getting him help, hooking him up with people that helped him build a plan to get his personal and NFL life back on track. Brown says Tampa Bay didn’t want him, and that Tom Brady “made them want me.”
Antonio Brown joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by Bruce Arians, and became a Super Bowl champion. He was second on the Buccaneers in receptions in the Super Bowl and scored a touchdown. He only played 23 snaps, 5 fewer snaps than #2 tight end Cameron Brate. The other wide receivers on Tampa Bay, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tyler Johnson and Scott Miller, combined to play 131 snaps. They also combined for 3 catches, 40 yards and 0 TDs. Brown caught 5 passes for 22 yards and a touchdown. Antonio Brown outperformed the rest of the Buccaneers receivers while playing 23 (15%) of the 154 snaps that the Buccaneers gave to their receivers in the game.
With the information we have from the past and new information from this podcast, it appears likely that Antonio Brown and Bruce Arians’ relationship played a part in the Steelers moving on from Arians after the 2011 season. Todd Haley moved Antonio Brown to the X receiver position that Arians claimed he wasn’t smart enough to play and Brown put up a six-season run that is statistically unmatched in NFL history.
It’s fascinating and poetic that Tom Brady would help Antonio Brown get back into the NFL, only to go to Tampa Bay and bring Antonio Brown to play for Bruce Arians again. It also helps add a little background to the sideline blowup and walk-out that Antonio Brown pulled in 2021.
The entire Antonio Brown saga will go down as a fascinating and tragic chapter in Steelers history. Thanks to Ryan Clark and his podcast, we have a little bit better idea of what that chapter was really like.