The NFL is in a much different place than it was 40 years ago.
Four more teams have been added, games are now played on Thursday nights, coaches and referees can review controversial plays using instant replay, and rules permitting defensive contact have been changed on multiple occasions.
But easily the biggest change in the NFL over that time is money. The NFL was profitable in 1975, but it wasn't nearly the cash cow it is now. Television contracts have skyrocketed, while marketing clients, stadium deals and team merchandise sales have made the NFL and each of their teams extremely wealthy.
In 1975, NFL players' had little to zero control over their contract negotiations, leading to many players making way under their value. It was said that original Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm's philosophy was to "low-ball" his stars so that the Cowboys' other players couldn't ask to make more than the Roger Staubachs and Randy Whites of the team. 1971 NFL Rookie of the Year Duane Thomas once said that a fellow Cardinals rookie made more in bonus money for being the Rookie of the Year on his team than what Thomas made in his salary that year. A bitter Thomas silently protested the media and his team in 1971, and despite helping lead the Cowboys to a win in Super Bowl VI, his bitterness and overall aloof personality led to his exit from the game in 1974.
Needless to say, players in Duane Thomas's shoes back then would love the leverage the players in the NFL have today. It began in the mid 1980's with the USFL offering the first multi-million dollar contracts in professional football history. Hall-of-Famers Reggie White, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly all played their primal pro football seasons in the USFL before the league folded in 1985. But with the dawn of free agency in 1993, players were again given power at the negotiation table, leading to the NFL free agency landscape we have today. The NFL has never made more money, and it's players are making sure to get their piece of the pie.
This brings us to the Antonio Brown situation which arose Monday after it was reported that the Steelers All-Pro receiver is considering skipping offseason workouts as he hopes to negotiate a new deal. Brown currently is right in the middle of his six-year, $43 million dollar deal he signed in the summer of 2012, meaning that he would be a free agent in the spring of 2018.
While restructuring a players contract halfway through a deal, especially one as lucrative as Brown's current one is, is normally not in a team's best interests, it's not in this case. In fact, for various reasons, it makes sense for Brown to do, and even for the Steelers to do.
While one could argue that Brown signed and should honor his three-year-old contract, if anyone can make the argument that he's outplayed his current contract, it's Brown. On Monday, Jacob Klinger of pennlive.com wrote an informative piece on Brown's financial standing among NFL receivers, noting that Brown is currently the fifth highest paid receiver in terms of 2015 base salary, per 2014 receiving yards, seventh in base salary per reception and seventh in base salary per touchdown.
Brown was fresh off of his first Pro Bowl campaign following his second season in the NFL when he signed his six-year deal back in 2012. While injuries limited Brown's production in 2012, he has since ripped off two of the best receiving season in franchise and NFL history. In 2013 and '14, Brown caught a total of 239 passes for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns. The only other player in NFL history in the 230-catch, 3,000-yard, 20 touchdown club for consecutive seasons is Jerry Rice, whose 234-catch, 3,347-yard, 28 touchdown tally over the 1994 and '95 seasons rival what Brown was able to accomplish over the past two seasons. Only Cris Carter compiled more receptions in consecutive years than Brown's 239 over the last two years. This past season, Brown drew praise from the greatest wide receiver of all-time in Rice, who called No. 84 the best young wide receiver in football.
The Steelers let Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders walk over the past three seasons, making Brown Ben Roethlisberger's go-to receiver ever since. But when the Steelers secondary receivers failed to emerge early in 2014, the onus was on Brown to deliver each and every game. Brown did just that, recording at least 90 receiving yards 13 times while recording at least five catches in each game. Throw in the defense's questions marks, it's imperative the team keeps it's offensive juggernaut happy in case the defense struggles in the early portions of 2015. Brown surely knows this, and it's something that he could use to his advantage at future bargaining talks.
While the Steelers are notorious for not restructuring contracts with this many years remaining on a deal, making this move with Brown now wouldn't be a bad call. Brown will be 27 years-old when the 2015 season begins, and his prime seasons should all come in the next five years. It's inevitable that Brown would need a new contract in the future, why not sign him now while Brown still has five to seven prime seasons left and when the team has a comfortable amount of cap space? Signing Brown now would ensure that the best receiver in the NFL will stay in Pittsburgh through the prime of his career which includes the final five years of Big Ben's career and possibly beyond. Taking care of Brown's deal now would also give General Manager Kevin Colbert time to assemble game plans for future contract deals in regards to Le'Veon Bell, Cameron Hayward, David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum. Take care of singing No. 84 now, and use the next several off-seasons structuring the rest of the team's contract needs.
Brown has certainly earned his place among the league's best wide receivers with his work ethic and desire to be great at his craft. By all accounts, Brown is a team leader and someone that has been a valuable member of the team both on and off the field. The Steelers could choose to reward Brown's tremendous efforts in becoming a team leader and the best receiver in the NFL, as well as providing him the comfort of knowing the next 5-7 years of his career will be in Pittsburgh.
Antonio Brown already makes a fortune, and yes, in other walks of life, restructuring a deal of this magnitude would be looked at as selfish and absurd. But in today's NFL, where millions of dollars are viewed on entirely different scales than most other places in society, players fight to be paid their value, and the best wide receiver in the NFL is no different. Fortunately for the Steelers, restructuring Antonio Brown to a long term deal now could be what's best for both parties involved, and it could lead to much more success for both entities in the future.