By MIKE HERNDON
Are you mad at one of your co-workers? Maybe jealous of another one? Think you should be making more money?
Here’s what you do: First, don’t show up for a few days. Then after the boss takes disciplinary action, come back and proclaim that you’re ready to go to work. After you’re sent home, demand to be set up with a job at a competing company, but only if it agrees to your healthy contract demands. While you’re waiting, tell the world you didn’t really need this job anyway – or any job, really. And tell them to start calling you Mr. Big Chest.
Don’t think it’d fly? Worked like a charm for Antonio Brown.
By quitting on his team, which at the time was still fighting for a playoff berth, and repeatedly sabotaging its attempts to get him the trade that he asked for, Brown in the end got everything he wanted – a new team, a new contract that will make him the highest-paid receiver in football, and apparently one last turn of the knife to his former employer.
Who says the owners have all the power in the NFL?
Brown and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, just gave the blueprint for how elite players can – and now, probably will – get what they want in today’s NFL. Turn yourself into a cancer and they’ll be so desperate to get rid of you that they’ll play right into your hands.
Why else would the Steelers have given one of the best receivers in the league away for essentially nothing – a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder?
Was this all an elaborate scheme by Brown and Rosenhaus or an extended freak-out that just happened to pay off? It’s safe to say that something that worked so clearly in Brown’s favor didn’t just happen by accident.
Let’s look at the prevailing theories of why he decided to talk his way out of Pittsburgh:
- A rift with Ben Roethlisberger, whom he’s accused of throwing receivers under the bus.
- Jealousy of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was named team MVP this year over Brown.
- A pure power play for a more lucrative contract.
I’ll go with 4: All of the above.
No. 1 was his stated reason for skipping practice, and he’s not wrong. Roethlisberger many times says all the right things, but has occasionally thrown curious blame at his receivers, and Brown isn’t the only one who’s said so (former Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders has made similar claims). The most obvious incidence came this year after a loss at Denver, as Roethlisberger complained on a radio show that Brown had run the wrong route on the Steelers’ final play – a play in which Big Ben threw an interception straight to a defensive tackle who dropped a few steps off the line.
Can you imagine Tom Brady or Drew Brees saying such foolishness in public? It’s not just the me-first stat-padding of players like Brown and Le’Veon Bell that has contributed to exactly zero Super Bowl titles for what’s arguably the most talented collection of offensive players the Steelers have ever had – it’s a lack of leadership at the position from which it’s most required, and a coach (looking at you, Mike Tomlin) who allowed this three-ring circus in the first place.
Yes, Roethlisberger’s won two Super Bowls, but those teams had other on-field leaders — Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior. Those players are all retired now and the Steelers haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the 2010 season.
No. 2 was rumored after Brown skipped practice and was suspended for the game. I’m skeptical of the pettiness necessarily to pitch this level of a fit over something as inconsequential as a team MVP award – even for Brown – but this much makes sense: Smith-Schuster’s success, if sustained, was bound to ultimately cut into Brown’s numbers and, by extension, into his market value when his deal was up.
Which brings us to No. 3, likely the primary reason for all this nonsense. Rifts with quarterbacks can be mended, particularly when said QB is feeding you over 100 receptions a year and threw you 15 TDs this season. Brown would be 34 when his current deal with the Steelers was up. He’s realistically only going to get one more big contract in his career. Add the emergence of Smith-Schuster, and he heard the clock ticking.
Engage Operation Big Chest.
I don’t really know if the whole thing was orchestrated or just part of it. If quitting on his team with the playoffs still on the line was part of the act, it was unnecessary. He could have done all this in February and not shafted his teammates.
But there he was, after signing with the Raiders, smiling on social media with the ridiculous mustache that he’d dyed blonde trimmed neatly and returned to its natural hue. The clown show was suddenly over.
The Steelers, meanwhile, were stuck. Brown clearly didn’t want to be there anymore. He alienated his teammates and his front office, asked for a trade and then sabotaged his own trade value, whether out of idiocy or sheer spite. They’d already dealt with the distraction of Bell sitting out the season in a contract dispute and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Did they really want another year-long headache in the locker room? And nobody, apparently, was going to give them anything approaching commensurate value in a trade – particularly for a player who wanted upwards of $20 million a year and who was stating publicly to anyone who would listen that he didn’t really care if he played or not.
So they took what they could get. What else could they have done?
I’ll tell you what: They could have called his bluff. Would he have really sat out the season if he wasn’t traded? Fine, then sit out the season. Forfeit the $17 million you would have earned and you’ll be another year older trying to get that oversized contract you’re looking for. Or be a professional and go to work.
Instead, the Steelers panicked. They gave away whatever little leverage they had by announcing their desperation in setting a ridiculous deadline for offers. Scared of eventually losing him for nothing — or of the havoc he’d cause in their locker room next season — they essentially gave away their most talented player. They took pennies on the dollar.
But the distraction caused by Bell — who just signed with the Jets for less money that the Steelers had offered him — wrecked the Steelers’ season, you say. Did it? James Conner emerged quickly and the Steelers led the division until a late-season swoon fueled by their inability to win West Coast road games at Denver and Oakland — a common refrain under Tomlin.
So what will the Steelers end up getting in return for a player who averaged 114 catches, 1,500 yards and 11 TDs over the last six years? They did get James Conner, Cameron Sutton and Javon Hargrave with third-round picks in 2017 and ’16, but their third-rounders in the five years before that were: Sammie Coates, Dri Archer, Markus Wheaton, Sean Spence and Curtis Brown. The only fifth-rounders they’ve drafted in the last decade who have done anything of note are Jesse James and Jaylen Samuels.
So maybe they get a decent starter, or maybe they get a couple guys who’ll be out of the league in two or three years.
There is no scenario where the Steelers won here. Even if they draft another Conner and Samuels with the picks they got from Oakland, even if they make the playoffs next year and the Raiders don’t, even if Brown’s numbers nose-dive playing with Derek Carr, there will still always be the memory of what he did — and could have done more of — in black and gold, and the knowledge that they should have gotten more for a player of his ability.
Meanwhile, the rival Cleveland Browns have added Odell Beckham Jr., Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon. The price of poker’s going up in the AFC North and Pittsburgh just lost a fat pot on a pair of deuces.
And the next time an elite player wants to get out while still under contract and get his money while he can, what do you think he’s going to do?
This clown show’s over for the Steelers. For the rest of the league, it may be just beginning.
(Photos via Twitter/@ComplexSports & @NFL_DovKleiman)